Chapter 1

It was dark in the City, and in the great Temple of the One Light shadows settled between the columns and the benches. Only at the Temple’s heart, the Crucible, was there light. The Crucible flame burned tall and steady, and lanterns burned too, standing at the head and foot of the bier that stood before the Crucible. On the bier, covered in white cloth to the breast, lay the body of a very old man – a Priest, for he wore a Priest’s striped robe, though the vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes were now closed in death. The face was lined, but very serene. Beside the bier stood another Priest, his bright gaze fixed on the still figure. His hair was iron-grey, and he was well past middle age, though he could not yet be called old. In his hands he turned a broad golden collar bearing the Symbol of the One Light, and round his neck hung a chain of silvery metal carrying a replica of the Symbol, at whose centre was set a white stone, seemingly an insignificant pebble – save that at its heart burned a spark of light like a tiny white fire. Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer, stood quietly gazing at the body of his father, Arnath, the High Priest. But Arnath was dead, and now it was Aiel who was High Priest of Light.

It had not been unexpected, this death, for lately Arnath had grown daily frailer – not through any sickness, for Light had spared him that, but simply his great age, and the quiet slowing and wearing out of his flesh. If his body had been weak, though, his spirit had grown stronger and more indomitable daily. Arnath had known he was dying, but he had not been afraid, for he was a Child of Light. When he died, he would touch Light, he knew, and be reunited in the Joyous Place with Elandra, Aiel’s mother, who had died so many long years ago in childbirth, and the child that had died with her. He had spoken words of love and encouragement to his son and to his family, and prayed with and for them, each night. And two nights ago, after this time of family sharing, he had gone to his quiet sleep and never wakened, slipping peacefully into the Presence of Light. Aiel mourned his father, the love and guidance and encouragement he had received from Arnath, all his life, even when he was a grown man, a father and grandfather. He could not, though, be sorry that Arnath had touched Light, was in the Joyous Place with those he loved. Aiel knew that his time would come to touch Light, and then he would see his father again. Meanwhile, tomorrow Arnath would be laid to rest, with family and friends coming to do him the final honours, and it would be, despite the sorrow, a time of celebration of Arnath’s life and service to Light.

Lost in his sad-sweet musings, Aiel had not noticed the approach of two young men in Priests’ robes who had come down the passageway which led from the Priests’ quarters into the Temple. Though they stood patiently behind him, he did not Perceive their presence, nor know they were there, until a pleasant young voice said, hesitantly, “Grandfather? Is it well with you?” “We were concerned” added the other young man, his voice almost identical to his brother’s. Aiel turned, and smiled at his grandsons. Those grandsons, Zarel and Aren, were unique even among a unique Priesthood. They were identical twins, a rarity in Li’is and never before known among the sons of the Priesthood. Aiel’s son Arenel had married Zohra, herself the daughter of a twin, and granddaughter of the Ket, the Lord of the Westerners. Zohra’s own unique gift was that she – alone of all in Li’is – could hear the Song of the Dancers, the beings of light and energy who shared the world of Li’is with men. She was an accomplished, instinctive musician, and her sons also delighted in music. Zohra’s beautiful, haunting compositions were often played in the Temple worship by musicians including Zarel and Aren. Zarel was the firstborn twin, by a few minutes, and so would be High Priest one day, after Aiel and Arenel. But there was no telling the twins apart if they did not wish it, even now they were grown, and as children even their father, mother and sister had occasionally been mistaken. The young men were average in height and build, with the sturdy grace of their Western heritage, quick and easy of movement. Arenel’s cousin Mellin, Swordsman and Lord of the Mountains and Fortress, had once commented “If those two were not born to the Priesthood, they would have made fine Swordsmen.”

Born to the Priesthood they were, though, as their vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes showed. The thick black lashes that fringed those eyes, their glossy black hair, and the golden tint to their skin they owed to the Western heritage of Zohra, their mother, though the fine bones of their face ,like their Perception, came through Aiel and Arenel. Zarel and Aren were gentle, compassionate young men, wholly given to their service to Light, though they could be fierce in defence of the right, or in defiance of injustice. To their parents, and especially their grandparents, they were loving and respectful. Aiel was very fond of his grandsons, but, sometimes, puzzled by them too. Beyond the unique bond always shared by twins, they also had the link of their Perceptions. So close was that link that it was largely involuntary and semi-permanent. If Aiel set his Perception on one twin, the other was always there, like an echo. It was a strange experience. Their sister, Rentha, seemed to regard them with an amused motherliness, though she was over two years younger. Though they loved their sister, the twins were so much a unit that had she been another kind of maiden, Rentha might have felt shut out by their completeness. Aiel’s granddaughter, though, was a happy, sweet-natured girl, very like her beloved grandmother, for whom she had been named. Though she had her mother’s Western colouring, the shape and sweet expression of her face, and her expressive brown eyes, as well as her tender heart, reminded Aiel very much of Arentha, his Lady, when they had first met.

Aiel saw his other grandchildren less often, since his daughter was married to Janir, the Lord of the Western Fortress, whose mother was Mira, the sister of Aiel’s friend, bond-brother and Way-Sharer, Lin. Janir had a special place in Aiel’s heart, not only for his own noble qualities, but because he had saved Aila’s life on the continued Lightstone Way. He and Aila were very happy, loving each other devotedly. Aila’s only regret was that both their children were girls; she would have liked a son for Janir’s sake. If he were disappointed, though, there were no signs; he doted on his daughters, Janna and Lira. Janna too was very like her mother and grandmother, and she and Rentha were more likely to be taken for sisters than she and her real sister, Lira. Janna was dark-haired, with dark brown eyes, but Lira favoured Janir’s colouring, with waving chestnut hair and lighter brown eyes. She had a bolder spirit, too, than Janna, and was often the leader, though she was the younger. Well, tomorrow they would all be here, and all Lin’s family too – Lin and Krystha, Arentha’s sister, his Lady, their son Mellin with his Lady Marla – Marla whose birth had been in Darkness and whose desperate search for Light had been the continuing Lightstone Way, happily resolved at last. They had a son, Karlin, and daughter, Mella. There was Karis, too, the late-born son of Lin and Krystha, who was little more than two years older than his nephew, and more likely to be taken for Karlin’s brother.All the Way-Sharers, their families and friends, would be here tomorrow, to honour Arnath’s long life of service to Light. All these thoughts flashed through Aiel’s mind in the few moments before he answered Zarel and Aren.

“It is well with me” he said, “though I thank you for your concern. I was thinking of tomorrow, and all those who will be here.” “I wonder…” Zarel pondered softly, “Grandfather, do those in the Joyous Place know – will our great-grandfather know that we love and mourn and honour him?” “In one way or another, surely he will” Aiel answered. “And I rejoice that he will be reunited with Elandra my mother, and the babe that died with her. It has been a long parting for him.” Aren said “He was so old and frail, but so strong in Light. I have sometimes felt ashamed that beside his, my faith seemed so weak!” His twin nodded agreement, and Aiel smiled at them, and said “You are young, Zarel, Aren, and have not yet endured that testing of your faith that makes it stronger.” And somehow, as he spoke, he felt a strange tingle in his Perception, as though, without knowing it, he had prophesied for them. He was about to bid them go back to their home, now, when he felt, quite definitely, a strangeness touch his Perception. He saw that Zarel and Aren Perceived it too, and the three Priests stared at each other. He felt their unspoken question in his Perception, and then, quite suddenly, he knew what it was that he Perceived, though it had been so long, he had been slow to recognise it. Quietly he watched as the air beside the Crucible began to shimmer and seemed to thicken. He heard the twins’ astonishment and wonder echo in his Perception as, beside the Crucible, another flame took shape – a tall, beautiful, blue-green flame of living light, with a glowing heart – a Dancer.

One of the twins gave a gasp of wonder, both of them stared at the light-being as it hung sparkling in the air. The Dancer’s thought extended to them all. “Greetings, Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer. Greetings, Zarel and Aren, Priests of Light. Honour to Arnath, the dead in Light.” Aren asked, aloud, in a hesitant voice. “Have you come – has Light sent you – because of Arnath? That is an honour indeed!” “I am here because Arnath has touched Light, yes, and I honour his life in and for Light, but that is not the reason that I came.” “Is it the Lightstone-Bearer that you seek, then?” Aiel asked. “Yes, that is so.” Aiel asked again “Why are you here, Dancer? Is it time for the Way to continue, at last?” But he was thinking to himself that, though still healthy and able, neither he nor Lin were the young men they had been, and each had new responsibilities. Would they be able to take up the Way again? The Dancer ‘said’ “Aiel, Light-Friend, the Way continues – but it is no longer yours to walk it, only to be a guide to those who do, and a helper at the Way’s end.” Aiel felt mingled relief and disappointment. The Dancer went on “As to my presence here, I have come at the bidding of Light. I am here to sing to Zarel and Aren.” Two pairs of vivid blue eyes widened, two pairs of dark brows arched in enquiry, as the twin Priests gazed up at the light-being. Aiel could Perceive the bursting curiosity in them. he said “Then sing, Dancer.” He watched his grandsons closely. He guessed the reason for the Dancer’s errand – to confirm whether Zarel and Aren had inherited their mother Zohra’s unique ability to hear the Dancers’ Song.

Aiel could not, of course, hear the Song himself, but he knew as soon as the Song began, because the two younger Priests were instantly gone from him, rapt and lost and totally absorbed in the Dancer’s Song. Aiel sent out his Perception, knowing it could not disturb the enraptured pair, to their father Arenel. “Arenel, a Dancer is here, in the Temple. It is singing to Zarel and Aren. And they hear it!” He felt his son’s startled response, and then Arenel’s “Why?” “It is to do with a new Way. Come, Arenel, and bring Zohra!” The Dancer was still singing when Arenel entered the temple. Zohra was with him, but her expression was as rapt as her sons’. She stood still by the door as soon as Arenel released her hand, and he explained to Aiel “Zohra began to hear the Song as soon as we entered the Temple.” “The Dancer came at the bidding of Light, it said”, Aiel told him, “to sing to the twins. It must be to find out if they have Zohra’s Gift – and it seems they have.” The Dancer, its Song ended ,’said’ “That is so, Aiel.” Aiel and Arenel saw the twins, released from the thrall of the Song, simultaneously give an odd little shake of their heads, like a swimmer breaking the surface of the water, and stare at each other. Zohra, by the door, gave a little sigh, then went to her sons and put her arms round them. She smiled at Arenel. “See, I am no longer alone” she told him. “Our sons hear the Dancers’ music too.”

“Aiel” the Dancer ‘said’, and Aiel knew that its thought, now, was extended to him alone, “It is time to relinquish the Lightstone.” Aiel felt a pang. The Lightstone had become so much a part of him! On the day he had received it, his father Arnath had told him that he would bear it always, all his life, unless Light bade him relinquish it to another. Somehow he had never thought anything but death would take the Lightstone from him. But it was not his, never his, only and always held in gift from Light to do Light’s work, and if it was the Will of Light that he hand it on to another, he could not and would not gainsay it. His Perception told the Dancer “If it is Light’s time for me to relinquish the Lightstone, I will. But if it concerns the twins – they are two, and the Lightstone is one. They cannot both be the Lightstone-Bearer.” “It is Zarel” the Dancer told him “who will be the Bearer. Yet Aren will share his Way in a manner you would not think possible!” And suddenly Aiel remembered the prophecy of the Secret Word – “Two and two, and times and Time out of their place, but all for good…” He did not realise he had spoken the words aloud, until Zohra asked “Aiel, what is it? What are you saying?”

“It is the Secret Word, Zohra, the last part of the Secret Word, and it is about to be fulfilled. There is a new Way, but it is not for me, this time. It is to be Zarel and Aren’s Way. And Zarel…” He beckoned to his grandson, who came to him. Arel reached inside his robe and took out the Lightstone. Holding it in his hands once more, for the last time now, he gazed into its glowing heart, drawing the strength to do what he must. He raised the Stone on its chain, and Zarel stood quietly, not yet understanding, expecting only to receive, as he had before, the Lightstone’s blessing. Only when Aiel lifted the chain over his own head and held it out towards Zarel, did the young Priest begin to comprehend, almost shying away, startled. Quietly Aiel said “Zarel, it is the Will and the Word of Light. You now become the Lightstone-Bearer.” Zarel let Aiel place the chain around his neck, then, but still he whispered, as Aiel himself had done, so many years before, “I am not worthy of the Lightstone!” And Aiel in turn, just as Arnath had then, lifted the Stone and placed it to Zarel’s brow in blessing, and watched the light overflow from it and pour over the young Priest like a fountain. When the light had withdrawn, he looked into Zarel’s glowing eyes, and told him “Light finds you worthy, Zarel. Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” All sense of loss was gone from him now. Instead he felt love and gladness for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer. Yet he wondered about Aren. Quickly he cast the net of his Priestly sense towards the other twin, but found only his astonishment, his wonder, and his delight for his brother. No, Aren would not be envious. Aiel would not really have expected it. All of them had been so taken by surprise by the train of events that none of them questioned what was happening, or why. Now, though, Zarel asked, in some bewilderment, “But – Dancer, Grandfather…what is it that I am to do?” The Dancer ‘said’ “Tomorrow, after the ceremonies for Arnath and Aiel, I will come to you again, and explain. Aiel, you must gather all the Way-Sharers, and their families. All must be there. Wait for me on the Lightstone Room, and I will bring you Light’s bidding for this new Way. Meanwhile, give Zarel and Aren what guidance you can.” Before they could question further, the Dancer shimmered into nothingness again.

After they had watched the Dancer disappear, Zarel turned to Aiel, and asked, gravely, “Grandfather – why should it be, that I am to be the Lightstone-Bearer? I do not wish to rob you of it!” “Dear lad, you do not rob me!” Aiel answered, lovingly. “The Lightstone was never mine, only held in trust from Light. I knew, as you will too, that I must relinquish it when Light bade me to.” “Does it mean danger for Zarel?” Aren asked, concerned for his twin. Aiel answered, honestly, “It may. If the Way continues now, it is in battle against Darkness, that is for sure. The Way is Zarel’s, yet the Dancer told me you would share it ‘in a manner I would not think possible’. And certainly, it has something to do with your inheritance from Zohra” – and he smiled at his son’s Lady – “of her Gift of hearing the Dancers’ Song.” Zohra said “I know my sons have the spirit of the West, though they are Priests of Light. If there is danger they will not fear to face it.” Zarel replied “That is true, Mother – yet I would put my trust in Light and the Lightstone, not in my own courage. That might fail me, but Light never will.” Aren was nodding agreement, and Arenel commented “If you think like that, you are wise Zarel. But the Secret Word speaks of ‘two and two’, Father. Here are two, but who are the others?” “For that we must wait until tomorrow, when the Dancer will tell us” Aiel answered. “But first we must honour the dead.” They all glanced at Arnath, quiet on his bier before the Crucible.Almost it seemed as though his death had been a catalyst that had triggered these strange events. Remembering his father’s words to him so long ago, when Arnath had himself bestowed the Lightstone on his son, Aiel told Zarel “Never take off the Lightstone, Zarel. You must wear it always, so that it becomes part of you. It will first attune to you, and to your own strengths in Light, and then it will build new ones in you. If you gaze into it, and let it fill your Perception, you will learn from it. But your experience will not be mine, as mine was not Rafel’s, for the Stone does not overmaster us, but works with us, with all that we are, mind and soul and spirit.” Zarel asked, almost shyly “But I may come to you for advice, at need, Grandfather?” “Of course!” Aiel smiled. He put a hand on each twin’s shoulder and murmured a blessing on them both, then said “Go home now, and rest if you can. We do not know what strength you may need for tomorrow, when the Dancer comes again.”

He watched as Arenel, Zohra and their sons walked back through the corridor, talking quietly together. They would go out of the Priests’ entrance and back to their own home, as would Aiel, soon. From tomorrow, though, the High Priest’s house would be his home. It was prepared, for it had been tenantless for a time, while Arnath passed his last days among his family. Aiel reflected on the many changes that had happened in the last few years. Arnath was the last of three old friends to touch Light, and it had brought upheavals for the Way-Sharers and their families. Merhaun, though the youngest of the three, had died first, leaving Lin and Krystha’s elder son, Mellin, as Lord of the Mountains and the Fortress. This had made Mellin quite uncomfortable at first, since he felt he was ousting his father, Lin, but Lin had reasonably pointed out that he had been only a guardian till Mellin was of an age to become Lord, and he himself had no claim whatsoever on the Mountain Fortress. All had been resolved when Linnad, lin’s father, followed his friend to the Joyous Place, and Lin became Lord of the Harbour. Lin and Krystha had left the Mountain Fortress to live in the pleasant house by the Harbour, and though they had both loved the Fortress, and still often visited it, they also came to love the bustling Harbour and its market area in a way they had not when they were younger. To Lin’s added sorrow, as well as his father and father-in-law, he had lost his brother-in-law and Sword-Brother Barengian too. A strange fever had been epidemic in the western farmlands, and Barengian had taken it in its most virulent form. Despite the devoted nursing of his son’s Lady Aila, the Healer, he had succumbed to the fever and died. So there was a new Lord of the Western Fortress too, Janir, Aiel’s son-in-law. New Lords, a new High Priest, and now a new Lightstone-Bearer.

And then there were those left behind ; Janira, Lin’s mother, had gone to the Western Fortress to live with Mira, his sister and Barengian’s widow. The two widows, mother and daughter, were a comfort to each other, and Janira was very welcome to share Mira, Janir and Aila’s home, though Janir sometimes laughingly protested at being outnumbered by so many women, his grandmother, mother, wife, and two daughters. Alira, Merhaun’s widow, divided her time between the homes of her two daughters, Krystha and Arentha, glad to be with them and, as she grew older herself, to be always close to the Temple of Light, where she went constantly to give thanks for her deliverance from Darkness and the happy years she had shared with Merhaun after their reconciliation. Karis too, Lin and Krystha’s younger son, contentedly divided his time between his parents at the Harbour and his brother’s family in the Fortress. There had been changes farther afield, too. The Ket, the Lord of the Westerners, had died also, gone to the Joyous Place in the way of his people, for these wanderers of the high Plateau did not bury their dead, but set them on funeral pyres. The more respected the dead, the greater the fire, and the night-time blaze of the Ket’s going had lit the Plateau like day. Now his twin sons, one of them the other grandfather of Aiel’s grandchildren, ruled the Westerners jointly. But Light had been merciful to the four original Way-Sharers, Aiel thought. They still had each other, he and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, though they were older and greyer, and they still had their friendship.

Now Aiel turned and went back through the passageway, out to his own house, where Arentha waited, still and always his lovely Arentha to him. And she was lovely still, for her gentle and quiet spirit was not marred by the years, though her dark hair had turned now to silver, and her skin was lined with the tracks of many smiles and some few tears. Tonight they were alone, for Alira was with Krystha, though she had come to the Temple early in the day to say her farewells to her old friend Arnath. As they ate their meal, Aiel told Arentha what had happened in the evening quiet of the Temple. She exclaimed “Zarel? But I thought you would always be the Lightstone-Bearer!” “I think I did, too” he told her, wryly, “but it is Light’s Will. I am not sad, or jealous – oh, I was for a moment”he added, honestly, “but then I felt joy for the lad, and I believe it was Light’s joy. Yet I am afraid for him too, a little. I wonder what it is that Light will ask of him. He has not given entrance to any Darkness, that he need defeat it. I hope I have not, by my actions so long ago, imperilled him now.” “Light is just, and would not ask payment for one man’s fault from another” Arentha said stoutly. “In any case, your fault, if there was any, was wiped out long ago by your obedience to the Lightstone Way. We must wait till tomorrow, as you bade Zarel do, and then the Dancer will tell us.”

In the Mountain Fortress, meanwhile, where news of Zarel’s accession to the Lightstone was not yet known, his aunt and uncle and their family had arrived to spend the night with their kin and friends before attending the funeral ceremonies at the Temple the next day. At the Fortress too that day had brought momentous events and changes in the lives of some of the younger members of the families. Now, as they settled at the table in the lamplit Great Hall to take their meal, despite their grief at Arnath’s death, there was a stronger joy for the living, a joy that shone particularly in the faces of two young people seated closely side by side, one a fair-haired, green-eyed, open-faced young Swordsman, the other a lovely, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. Their mothers were seated nearby, so like their son and daughter that there could be no mistaking, and the closest of friends. Marla, the green-eyed blonde, Lady of Mellin, Lord of the Mountains – the same Marla who had fought her way out of Darkness every inch of the renewed Lightstone Way, and had at last attained Light despite danger and the sorceries of the Silver Witch, Si-Mara. Si-Mara had given birth to Marla, but never been a mother to her, wanting her only as a potential wielder of a reforged Bloodstone. It had been Aiel, with the aid of the Lightstone, the Dancers, and a Spirit-in-Light, who had finally freed her from her Dark heritage. The other was Aila, Aiel’s daughter, herself a Perception-gifted Healer, whose staunch friendship for and championship of Marla had been one of her friend’s greatest sources of strength on that Way. Because Aila and Marla had become such dear friends during Marla’s Way, they spent as much time together as was possible, despite the distance between the Western and Mountain Fortresses. Aila would take her daughters to stay with Marla, or Marla bring Karlin and Mella to holiday at the Western Fortress.

One such trip had occurred when Karlin had just finished his formal Sword-Training – though he had been learning from his father and grandfather and alongside his young uncle all his life – and taken his vows to the Fortress Watch. He had worked hard and done well, and Mellin had decreed a holiday and sent him off with Marla and Mella to visit Janir and Aila. To everyone’s astonishment Karlin and Janna, Janir and Aila’s elder daughter, had become inseparable, and at the end of the visit declared themselves to be in love. Since Karlin was so young, and Janna even younger, their parents had treated them gently, sympathetically, but, not expecting this first love to last, had not taken them too seriously. However, the young lovers had remained constant. Though they were rarely together, they seemed to live only for those brief visits, and lost no opportunity, when messages needed to be passed between the Fortresses, to send their own. There were many young men at the Western Fortress, Swordsmen, some of them Westerners, but Janna cared only for Karlin. And there were pretty girls in the City, but Karlin ignored them, and spent his off-duty time in the City with his Sword-Brethren, or choosing little gifts to send to Janna. After four years their love still lived, and now that Janir and Aila, with both their daughters, were arriving to stay at the Fortress in order to attend the funeral ceremonies for Arnath, Karlin was overjoyed. Mellin, who had had no objections to a match except that Karlin and Janna had been so young, thought that he must speak to Janir about the matter when his cousin arrived. Karis, who was in a unique position regarding Karlin, had already spoken to Mellin. Being, by virtue of his youth, so close to Karlin, more like a brother than an uncle, he had been the boy’s confidant. Yet, because he was Mellin’s brother, he also had the right to speak to the Swordsman as an equal, regarding Karlin’s welfare. “Mellin”, he had championed the young couple, “Have they not proved that their love is a lasting thing, not childish imaginings?” And Mellin had smiled affectionately at his younger brother, and said “Peace, Karis! Marla and I have already decided to discuss this with Janir and Aila when they arrive. But say nothing to Karlin yet!”

Karlin had been almost the whole afternoon on the Fortress walls, watching for the arrival of the party from the West. Karis watched him pacing there with compassion. He had seen the carefully kept letters from Janna, heard Karlin’s hopes and longings, helped him in the choosing of gifts. Gazing up at his impatient young kinsman, Karis hoped that today might bring him good news. If Janir were of a mind with Mellin, this visit might end all uncertainty for the young couple. Karlin called down from the wall “They are coming!” and came leaping down the stairway, eyes glowing. Karis smiled at him and said “Not long to wait now, Karlin.” It was almost like looking into a mirror, to look into Karlin’s face. Both young men had inherited Lin’s muscular, lean build and thick golden hair – though Lin’s had now faded to silver. Both had his open, honest face and the same slight quirk to a smiling mouth. Save that Karlin had the green eyes of Marla, his mother, and Karis, Krystha’s amber-brown ones, they were so alike that they might have been, and often were, taken for brothers instead of uncle and nephew. The fact that Karis was only a little more than two years older than Karlin aided the confusion. The two young men joined their family in the Great Hall to await the guests’ arrival. Karlin’s bright face and obvious impatience awoke little smiles of sympathy and tender amusement as they waited. At last the moment came when Janir and Aila appeared in the doorway with their daughters behind them. Janna’s lovely face, so like her mother’s and grandmother’s, was as lit with joy as Karlin’s. Her brown eyes flew straight to his face, her sweet mouth curved in a delighted smile. Behind her Lira, her sister, hung back a little, as if knowing that this moment was Karlin and Janna’s.

As they greeted each other, Karlin somehow remembered to be correct, greeting Janir with the Swordsmen’s handclasp, saluting Aila, giving Lira a perfunctory hug and kiss. But when he turned towards Janna and she to him, it was clear that no one else in the room existed for them now. He held her tightly to him, her arms clung round his waist. She bowed her head on his shoulder, he turned his face into the glossy dark fall of her hair. They were lost in each other. It was plain to see, now, that to keep them apart any longer would be as cruel as it was unnecessary. Janir, for whom too Aila had been his first and only love, perfectly understanding Karlin’s heart, turned to his cousin, reaching out to clasp him hand to forearm, as was the Swordsmen’s way, and when the greeting was over said softly “Mellin, I think they have proved their love. Is it not time to talk of a betrothal?” “Marla and I had been thinking the same thing” Mellin answered, smiling. “Then let us not keep them in misery any longer” Janir said. “Mellin…” “She is your daughter, Sword-Brother” Mellin broke in, laughing, “and yours to give to him!”

It took some moments to disengage the couple’s attention from each other when Janir called them to him. They came hand-in-hand, the joy in their faces touched with an apprehension at his summons that moved Janir and made him feel a wave of tenderness for them. They were so young, so in love, on the verge of their life together. If his beloved daughter found as much happiness with Karlin as he himself had with Aila, she would be happy indeed, Janir thought. “Karlin” he said “four years ago you asked me if Janna might be your Lady. Not from any unkind feelings towards you, but because you were both so young, I said no, bidding you bide your time. But Mellin and I have discussed this further, and since you are still true to each other, and your love as strong – then, if you both still wish to be betrothed, now I will say yes.” If they wished it! he thought, as he finished his formal little speech. Their faces were so bright with relief and love and joy, they could have lit a dark room. Janna exclaimed, with tears of joy, “Oh, Father! Oh, Karlin!” and could say no more but, overcome, turned back to the shelter of Karlin’s arms. He, though, holding her tightly, looked Janir in the eyes and said solemnly “Janir, this is the most precious gift that ever I was given – and one I will guard with my life.” Janir was touched. he laid a hand on Karlin’s shoulder, and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Aye, dear lad, I know you will. Light bless you both.”

In this way the young couple’s dearest wish had been granted, and now, as the family shared their evening meal, the joy that had intoxicated Karlin and Janna all afternoon and evening had settled on all of them. Tomorrow there would be the solemnities of Arnath’s funeral, but for now all was gladness and contentment in the Mountain Fortress. Aila smiled on her blissful daughter, and glanced sideways at Janir, thinking to herself that Janna would be blessed in her choice of a husband ; Karlin went back to the same good stock as Mellin and Lin, as Janir did on his mother’s side – all of them brave, honest and honourable men – open-hearted and loyal to Light, to friends and Sword-Brethren. As indeed had been Barengian, her father-in-law, she added to herself. Janir had never failed her earliest expectations of him, yet had never shown any pride in the noble qualities which endeared him to her so much, remaining constantly and joyously surprised that Aila should have loved and married him. Suddenly, Aila was aware of a stirring at the edges of her idle thoughts, and knew that someone was reaching for her Perception. She realised it must be Aiel, or Arenel, and opened her Perception. It proved to be both her father and her brother, joined in the Thought-without-Words to reach out to her, telling her of the evening’s events, and that she should prepare the others for what was to happen tomorrow. Her eyes widened as she listened, and Janir, seeing this, exclaimed “Aila, my heart, what is it?” His words drew everyone’s attention to her, but she signed them all to silence until Aiel and Arenel’s message was finished. Then she looked round at their curious faces, and said “The Lightstone Way continues…” going on to explain what she had been told.


Chapter 14

The newly-weds spent a blissful few days at the Western Fortress, surrounded by friends and family, but then it was time to move on, with so much still to happen. Zohra would be returning to the Westerners’ Plateau with her parents, for a while, to join them later at the Fortress, bringing the finished garments for Marla’s and her own weddings . Arenel was sad to part from her, but was also glad to be setting out on his way home, since he had been away so long. Mellin, Marla and Lin were naturally eager to return to Krystha, and Arentha, Aila and Janir were to accompany them, since it was not long before she was due to give birth. Aiel and Arenel would go back to the Temple for a while, before rejoining the others at the Fortress. Aila, knowing that once the other weddings were over she would be returning to the Western Fortress to take up her new life with Janir, was happy to spend some time in the City and the Fortress before she finally moved to her new home.

The morning of their departure arrived, and they said their farewells. Arenel embraced Zohra and told her “It will not be long till our wedding, my heart.” Janir’s parents, and Zohra’s family, would of course be attending the other weddings, so they would all see each other soon. As they trotted out of the gates, Aila thought that she would soon know the way between the two Fortresses as well as Janir did. She remembered how he had told her that he had often volunteered to carry messages between the two, so that he could visit the City in the hope of seeing her. The memory moved her, and she cast a loving glance at her new husband, who smiled back. She glanced, too, at Arenel, wondering if he was feeling Zohra’s absence. He caught the touch of her Perception, and silently reassured her that all was well with him. The journey home was uneventful, with one overnight stay in the village as before, and they were glad to arrive back at the Fortress. Alira came to greet them, and in answer to Lin and Mellin’s somewhat anxious enquiries, told them that Krystha was very well, but resting. It was not long, though, before Krystha appeared, happy to see them all, and congratulating Aila and Janir on their marriage.

“It will be your turn soon” she told her son and Marla, and they smiled. “Once the babe has joined us!” Mellin replied, laughing, since they had agreed that the wedding should wait until after Krystha had given birth. “Oh, that will not be too long” Krystha told them. Arenel, who had not seen her for a long time, asked “Is it well with you, Aunt Krystha?” “It is well with me, indeed” she told him. “And how did you enjoy your time with the Westerners, Arenel? I see they have made you a brother.” For she too had noted the Westerners’ gold bracelet on his wrist. “It was interesting, for I learned much of their ways, and the Ket and Zohra’s family were very welcoming to me. And I was with Zohra.” He paused, then said “I hope I have learned enough to understand her, if she finds the ways of the City strange. Light has blessed me, that she should love me enough to give up her people and her place for me.” Arentha answered “We will make her welcome, and I will help her. It was strange to me too, at first, to leave the Fortress and live in the City, to be a Priest’s Lady, but it was worth it to me for your father’s love, and so it will be with you and Zohra.” She knew that when her husband and son left them tomorrow for a few days in the City, as well as their Temple duties they would be making arrangements for Arenel and Zohra to move after their wedding into one of the Priests’ houses in the Temple grounds, and felt happy that the couple would be so close, since she was losing Aila to her new life at the Western Fortress.

The travellers were glad enough to relax for a day or so before settling into the life of the Fortress. Since Krystha’s pregnancy was now so advanced, Arentha helped by taking over some of her household duties. When Aiel and Arenel left them, they carried with them a list of items to be obtained from the Harbour Market, in preparation for the birth and the weddings, which she had given them. Aila, meanwhile, was taking on her aunt’s role as Healer. Having learned of Krystha’s offer to train Marla as a healer too, and Marla’s delighted acceptance, she began her friend’s training by teaching her the Healers’ List, the details of the healing herbs, roots, and other plants that could be gathered at various times of the year. Some of those she could show Marla, as they grew in the Herb Garden of the Healing Place. Others, though, were wild plants, and she had only the dried specimens in the Healing Place to show, which often looked very different from their living state. In time, Krystha would be able to take Marla out into the Forest and show her the plants and where to gather them. She had also, as a Healer and a wife, taken on the task of discussing with Marla her friend’s expectations of married life, since her aunt, as prospective mother-in-law, might be a little too close to Marla for her to feel comfortable. Aila wondered, though, how she could reconcile her friend’s physical innocence with the things she had been forced to witness in the East and in Si-Mara’s house, and the way in which the Children of Night had tried to train her. Marla, though, told her “What those women did – that was all about controlling men, and turning them to Darkness, and the men acted only for lustful pleasure. It had nothing to do with love, and that is what Mellin and I have. I would not let such memories taint that, Aila.” And Aila smiled, and said “I am glad, Marla. You and Mellin will be happy, I know.”

Then there was the matter of preparing the Fortress for the wedding guests, for most of the guests for both weddings would arrive there first. The Fortress was large, with many buildings, and there would be room for all, but some of the outlying buildings would need refurbishment, and Arentha and Aila were on hand to help Alira and Krystha with the arrangements and the allotting of tasks to their household staff. The menfolk too were busy helping with various tasks about the Fortress, while Aiel and Arenel, once they returned, were able to share the duties of the Fortress Prayer Room with Trenn, giving him some extra leisure time. The young Swordsmen took their turns on watch, Janir happy to exchange the blue and golden yellow livery of the Western Fortress for the rust-red of the Mountain Fortress, for a while. He and Aila would often climb to the top of the Fortress Wall in the evenings, when daily duties were done, to look out over the vista before them and chat happily of the day’s doings, and Mellin and Marla would sometimes join them. So time passed peacefully enough while they waited, a lull in the excitement before the nearing birth of Lin and Krystha’s babe, and the weddings of Mellin and Marla, Arenel and Zohra.

Aila was in the Healing Place with her aunt, making ready the preparation of blueroot that would be needed for Krystha’s birthing, and chatting happily about her new life with Janir. Krystha smiled at her, and said “I have never seen Janir so content, Aila! But if, as you say, he had loved you in secret for so long, and never believed you could be his Lady, his joy now must be great indeed.” “He was so loyal to Mellin,thinking that we loved each other, that he would not say one word to betray his love to me!” Aila laughed. “And I had not thought how my sisterly affection for Mellin might seem, to another. But still, I honoured him for that loyalty when he told me, and it made me love him even more. I am certain I chose my husband wisely -with Light’s aid – and I am so glad to make him happy, Aunt Krystha.” “And anyone can see that you do that” Krystha replied. She began to heave herself off the bench on which she sat, but suddenly gasped and winced. Aila, fearful that her aunt, in the clumsiness of late pregnancy, had hurt herself, hurried to her. “What is it, dear? Have you wrenched your back?” But Krystha beamed at her “No- but I think you prepared the blueroot only just in time, Aila.” Aila too smiled joyously. “Now?” “Soon” Krystha said. “That was just a warning- but I must make ready.” Swiftly the two Healers prepared for the birth, getting Krystha bathed and into a nightgown, preparing the couch she would use, making up the draught of blueroot for later, when the birth pains grew stronger. There had only been a few more by the time all was prepared, and Aila asked “Shall I tell my father now?” For rather than leave Krystha, it had been agreed that she would use her Perception to ask Aiel to summon Arentha, who would be helping at the birth. Krystha paused as another pang ran its course, then said, “Aye, call Arentha – but tell Aiel to say nothing to Lin, yet. The babe will not be here before night, and I would not have him fretting all that time. And he would fret, Aila.” “I know” Aila said, and they shared a smile, as Krystha went on “We will call him in time to see his child born, when there will be more to occupy him than worrying over me!” Aila wondered, suddenly, when it would be her turn, and how Janir would feel when her time came to bear him a child. Her husband, she guessed, would be proud but concerned for her, just as Lin was with Krystha.

Concentrating, she sent out her Perception to alert her father, warning him not to tell Lin, yet. Her father answered that, fortunately, Lin was busy with some of the Westerners who had arrived that morning to bring some horses for the Fortress stock, and Mellin and Janir were with him. A little later Arentha arrived in the Healing Place, excited but a little apprehensive, bringing the tiny clothes and soft wraps for the new babe. It was some time before Krystha needed to go to her couch, time they spent happily discussing the new babe, and the forthcoming marriages. At length, though, Krystha’s pains grew deeper, closer, stronger, and Aila again reached for her father’s Perception and told him to call Lin, while Arentha gave Krystha the draught of blueroot to numb the sharp edge of her pains. It was not long before there was a tap at the door, and Lin entered, bringing Mellin too, who came in briefly to see Krystha. He looked distressed at her pain and effort, but between the pains she smiled at him and said “Mellin, it is well with me! But this is hard work – and my battle to fight, with your father’s help. So go now, and leave me to my task.” Thus dismissed, Mellin left, though unhappily, pausing at the door to look pleadingly at Aila, who went to reassure him as much as she could. She knew he would wait in the corridor outside, and was glad that Krystha was not the kind of woman who would shriek and scream. Krystha was a Healer, understood what was happening, knew her own body. Her deep groans were of effort, not of pain or fear.

Lin too, now that the birthing was in progress, had overcome his anxiety and was a stalwart comfort to his Lady, kissing her brow, rubbing her back, allowing her to grip his hands tightly as she rode out the birth pains. The night wore on, and all went well, and at last Aila leaned to look in her aunt’s tired eyes and tell her “Soon now, very soon!” “I know!” Krystha gasped, and took a deep breath, and gave a firm, strong push, and suddenly the babe’s head and shoulders appeared. One more effort and the child was born, still and silent for a moment as though astonished, then raising a strong cry and waving tiny purple fists as if enraged. “A boy!” Lin exclaimed, just as Aila too said “A fine son, Aunt Krystha, Lin!” Lin bent to embrace Krystha, while Arentha attended to the babe and Aila saw her aunt through the final stages of her birthing. “Oh, my love!” he whispered, “I am so happy that it is well with you- and we have another son.” As soon as the cord was tied and cut Arentha had cleaned and wrapped the damp, blood-smeared child. Holding him, she turned towards Krystha, who indicated that she should first give the child to Lin. Lin took the babe very carefully, as if afraid to drop him, and smiled down at him, then gently placed him in his mother’s arms. Krystha gazed blissfully down at her new-born son. “Aila, tell Mellin!” she whispered, guessing too that her now elder son would be outside the Healing Place.

Aila nodded, and went to the door. When she opened it, Mellin was sitting on a bench outside, and she saw that Marla had come to join him. When they saw her, Marla smiled, and Mellin leapt to his feet. “I heard the babe cry – is it well with my mother – and the child?” “It is well” she said, happily. “You were right, Mellin, it is a boy-child – a young brother for you. And Aunt Krystha is very well, and happy. Come and see!” They needed no second bidding. In a moment Mellin was at his mother’s bedside, bending to kiss her damp brow before gazing at his new little brother. “He is a fine child!” he pronounced, and Lin said proudly “He is beautiful, Mellin, and so is your mother!” Marla in turn admired the babe, and gently asked after Krystha. Then she said “Is it not a miracle, a new life? A gift of Light indeed!” Krystha smiled at her. “You are right, Marla!” then, looking at her family around her she said “How shall we name him, Lin? Who shall we call him for?” They had named Mellin together, for his father and grandfathers, but this time Krystha had given Lin the choice. Lin smiled, and with a glance at his elder son. answered “Mellin and I have chosen his name together. Since he was so sure of a brother, he suggested – and I agreed- that we name him Karis – for you, Krystha.” Krystha smiled at the compliment, and nodded agreement, and Arentha said “It is a good name.” The others agreed. Then Aila said “We should make you and the babe comfortable now, Aunt Krystha, and let you rest.”

Thus tactfully didmissed, Lin, Mellin and Marla bade affectionate farewells to mother and babe, and left the Healing Place. Arentha and Aila made sure that Krystha and the newly-named Karis were clean and comfortable, and Arentha said that, though both seemed in the best of health, she would sleep in the Healing Place in case of any need. Aila would gladly have taken this duty on herself, but her mother laughingly said that she should not desert her husband so soon after their marriage, and she could be sent for if needed. So Aila went on her way, turning aside first to the Great Hall for a cup of water. To her surprise she found Janir sitting there. “Not sleeping, my love?” she asked. “I waited with Mellin, till Marla came to him” he explained, “and then I did not wish to sleep, since all were awake, and my Lady” ,smiling at her, “was hard at work! Is it well with Aunt Krystha? The babe has come?” “It is very well” she smiled in return. “She is tired, but very happy. And the babe is a fine boy-child.” “It is good news!” Janir said. “Mellin was so impatient, and so sure of a boy-child- but also, I think, still a little fearful for his mother.” “And you kept vigil with your Sword-Brother?” “I did, till Marla came and said she would wait with him. I think he would have had her rest, but she insisted.” “No doubt you will see the babe too, tomorrow” she told him. “Lin and Mellin have chosen a name for him, with Aunt Krystha’s approval. He will be Karis, after his mother.” “A good name” he said, then stretched his long frame and yawned, which made her yawn too. “You are tired” he said, with a touch of concern. “It has been a long night” she answered, ” but a happy one. And we are both tired, my heart. It is time to thank Light for new joys, and to rest.”

Next morning they all slept late, and when Aila went to see that all was well with Krystha and Karis she took Janir with her, leaving him outside the Healing Place while she went in. Krystha was sitting up, with Karis cradled in her arms, and Arentha beside her. She assured Aila that all was well and the babe had fed, and smiled assent when Aila asked if Janir might now come and see his new cousin. When she admitted him, Janir went to kiss his aunt and examine the babe. “He has a look of Lin and Mellin” he commented. Offered the chance to hold Karis, he was a little anxious, but took his tiny cousin in his arms and smiled down at him. “It is good to meet you, little Sword-Brother!” he laughed, and said to his aunt “Mellin is so pleased to have a brother.” “And now we can proceed with his wedding!” Krystha answered. “I shall not lie here much longer. There is much to be done.” “We could send the Thought-without-Words to the Western Fortress” Aila suggested. “It will be quicker than any messenger, and Barengian can send word to Zohra.” All agreed on this idea, so when Aila and Janir left the Healing Place they went to the Prayer Room to find Aiel and Arenel. Trenn, the Fortress’ own Priest, was with them, and Aila joined them in sending the Thought-without-Words, first to Arnath and the Priests of the Temple, and on till it reached the Western Fortress. There was a pause while the Priest of the Western Fortress relayed the message to Barengian, then the response came back. Love and congratulations to Krystha, Lin and baby Karis, and the news that Zohra was in fact already at the Western Fortress, overseeing the final touches to the wedding garments, and they would be ready to leave in a day or so, with the Ket and his family following on. Other Westerners would join them in the City for Zohra’s own wedding. Arenel was glad to hear that Zohra would soon be with them and he would be reunited with her.

Aila, once the link was broken, said she would go to tell Arentha and Krystha, while Janir said he would find Merhaun, Lin and Mellin. Krystha was already wanting to be included in the wedding preparations and said that yes, she would rest, but not in bed, and certainly not in the Healing Place. “I am not sick” she told them. “I have given birth, and it is well with me and the babe. No need to keep to my couch. I would take sick then – from having nothing to do!” She reluctantly allowed Aila to accompany her to the Bathing Place,in case she needed her help. and Arentha to wait while she dressed, but soon she was seated in a comfortable chair in the Great Hall, with her babe in a crib at her side. Various members of the household found their way to the Great Hall on one pretext or another, to greet Krystha and admire the new babe, and it was not long before Alira and Merhaun arrived, beaming, to lay claim to their grandson.

Though Merhaun was Lord of the Mountains and the Fortress, and Alira his Lady, they had been happy enough, once Lin and Krystha were married, to hand on many of their duties to the younger couple and spend time together. Alira’s long exile in Darkness, ended by the mercy of Light through Aiel and the Lightstone, had left her unwilling, for a while, to take up the reins of the Fortress household again, and Krystha had been her deputy, as Arentha, who had had charge of most household duties before, had wed Aiel and moved to the City. Since their reconciliation, Merhaun had wanted to be with his Lady, to help her overcome her guilt and shame at what had happebed to her, reassuring her constantly that she was forgiven by Light and by him, and restored. Krystha and Lin, understanding this, had been glad to help by taking on the duties of the older couple, giving them time to resolve these matters. And it had been successful, for eventually Alira had accepted that she was forgiven and restored and could live as a Child of Light and Merhaun’s Lady again. In the end, it had come to be that the two couples worked in tandem for the good of the Fortress, and it had been good for all. Alira’s experiences, though, had led to her understanding of and admiration for Marla, who had fought so hard against the Darkness to attain Light, and she was glad that the girl was to be Mellin’s Lady. Now, as she embraced Karis, she said to Krystha “It will be strange, to have one grandson about to wed, and one new-born. But I am very happy!” Aila had relayed the message from the Western Fortress, and Krystha told her mother “Zohra will be here in a few days, with the wedding garments, and the other guests not far behind. All is prepared, and it will not be long to the wedding.” And indeed, all of them now were eagerly looking forward to Mellin and Marla’s imminent wedding.

That evening, while they waited for the evening meal, Aila and Janir, as they often did, had climbed the steps to the top of the Fortress wall and stood there hand in hand, looking out over the Forest. Looking towards the City, they saw a sudden brightness. At first Aila thought that the northern Temple doors facing towards the Fortress had been opened, and they were seeing the Crucible flame, though she could not think why, since it was not a Festival day. Janir, though, said “No, it is not the Temple, Aila. It is further down the Temple Hill. There must be a fire somewhere. ” That was unusual, for since the City was stone-built, fires rarely broke out. Aila looked again, her Perception stirring, and said “I think I Perceive some Darkness there, and something strange – something in the air, Janir.” Instinctively she sent out her Perception to call her father, and he soon arrived, bringing Arenel with him. Janir pointed out the strange fire, and Aiel, staring across at the City, Perceived what Aila had, a deeper darkness in the drifting smoke, here and there a red flash that was not a spark. Aiel drew out the Lightstone and focussed his Perception on it. As the Stone glowed, it enhanced his Perception so that he could easily reach to the City and the Temple. He found all well in the Temple, but elsewhere he Perceived great Darkness, and swiftly withdrew. “There are Night Lords in the City!” he exclaimed. “The Temple?” Janir asked, anxiously. “No, they are not near the Temple” Aiel answered, “but we must warn the Priesthood.”

He bent his attention again to the Lightstone and reached for the Perception of his father Arnath, the High Priest. Once that warning was given, he called Aila and Arenel to join him in the Thought-without-Words, and they sent out their Perceptions, this time towards the North. By the link he relayed his message through his brother Priests, until it reached the Gatekeeper. Then he broke the link, and lifted his gaze from the Lightstone, waiting. Arenel asked “Can they mean harm to Marla, still?” “No” Aiel said. “She is beyond their reach forever now. The Changing has made her useless to the Dark Ones. But what this may mean…” he broke off as the air beside him began to shimmer and the blue-green brightness of a Dancer appeared. Its thought extended to all of them, as it ‘said’ “We have come at your summons, Lightstone-Bearer. We will drive the Dark Ones away.” “But how could they come to the City?” Janir wondered. “They were invited” the Dancer replied, and Aiel asked “The Night Temple?” “It must be so” was the answer, then “Have no fear, Children of Light. We will deal with them, and I will return to tell you when they are gone.” The Dancer shimmered out of their vision again, and Arenel said “Is Si-Mara still trying to bring the Darkness into Li’is? But there is no Bloodstone, and no Bloodstone-wielder. What could she accomplish?” “And what is the fire?” Janir added. “Are they burning some evil sacrifice?” “As long as Marla is safe!” Aila whispered, and Janir tightened his hold on her hand and whispered back “Aiel has said so.”

By now the Watchwards had told Lin and Mellin of the anxious group on the wall and the sudden appearance of a Dancer, and the two Swordsmen joined the others. Aiel pointed out the fire across in the City and explained the situation, quickly adding that there was no threat to Marla, as he sensed Mellin’s concern for her. “But best she knows nothing of this, till the Dancer returns and explains what has happened” Aiel said, ” or she may yet be fearful.” Fortunately, though, Marla was occupied with Krystha and Arentha and baby Karis, and had not realised that anything unusual was happening. They looked across again at the City and the strange fire that had broken out. They did not see the Dancers or the Night Lords, since they were hidden in thick smoke, but those with Perception could sense a struggle taking place. Then suddenly they saw the smoke flatten strangely, followed by the dark, red-shot shapes that were neither smoke nor sparks shooting upwards into the darkening sky. After that the flames began to die down. The Dancer shimmered into being beside them again. “The Dark Ones are gone” it reported. ” The Priesthood have raised the alarm and men of the City and the Harbour Watch are dousing the flames. When that is done, the Priesthood must go there and cleanse the place of its last Darkness, Aiel.” “I will tell my father” Aiel said. “Our thanks to you and your brethren, Dancer, for your aid. There is no more danger from the Dark Ones?” “Not from them, no. They will not return to Li’is. There are still those among the people of Li’is who profess to belong to Darkness, but they are powerless now.” With this reassurance the Dancer left them, and Aiel used the Lightstone once more to relay its instructions to Arnath, who said he would go at once, with some brother Priests, to make the Cleansing Prayers.

“No more we can do, now” Aiel said. “We will learn more later, but for the present we know that all is well in the City.” He smiled at Mellin, then, and said “And there are still weddings to prepare for.” He led them down from the wall, Lin pausing to tell the Watchwards that the situation had been dealt with. It was strange to return to everyday things after the events they had witnessed, but they were mindful of not alarming Marla, and when those who had not been present asked what had happened, Aiel said only that there had been a fire in the City, but it seemed now to be under control. They relaxed over the evening meal and the discussion of wedding plans. Marla, still learning her place in Light, had been talking over the ceremony with Krystha and Arentha, anxious not to make any mistakes. Mellin said “I am glad we waited for Karis to be here.” “I am glad too!” Krystha exclaimed. “I was, I admit, a little unsure of the dates. It is very good that I need not waddle around at your wedding, or worry that the birthing might begin in the middle of it!” They all laughed at that, and Marla asked “When will Zohra arrive?” “Soon” Arenel said. “She was waiting for her wedding garment to be finished, since the fabric was specially woven.It has been complicated for the needlewomen with all our weddings so close together.” “You will be glad to see her” commented Arentha, “and so shall we.” Krystha left them, then, to feed and tend Karis, and Aiel and Arenel to go to the Prayer Room for the Evening Prayers. Arentha, left with her parents and the younger ones, looked round contentedly, and mused aloud “How true it is that Light is love, and the bringer of love. This Way of the Secret Word, though it brought so many fears and dangers and challenges, has also brought love and joy, first for us, the first Way-Sharers, and now for you. I wonder what will come of it next?” “Is the Way not finished, now?” Janir asked. “I do not know that” Arentha answered. “The Secret Word speaks of other things to come, and the Way may yet continue.” “Still, for now we may rejoice in what Light has wrought for us” said Aila. “Marla has attained Light and is Changed from Darkness forever, and as my mother says, we all have our loves, our Gifts-of-Light indeed. let that suffice.”

In the Prayer Room, once the Evening Prayers were finished, Aiel and Arenel stayed behind, knowing that in the Temple too the Prayer time would be over. Aiel drew out the Lightstone again, and he and Arenel linked Perceptions and sought out Arnath’s. The High Priest, they discovered, was still in the Temple and, seemingly a little unsettled by events, was glad enough to link Perceptions with them and tell what had happened. As the Dancer had instructed, he had taken some of the Temple Priests and gone to the site of the fire. It was, they had discovered, Si-Mara’s house, and they had finally found proof of the Night Temple, a great, hidden hall, with its fire-destroyed hangings and couches and dark altar. Though the buildings were stone, the roof and other parts were wood, and had burned fiercely. They had found no one alive in the buildings, but there had been one death. Lying by the Black Altar they had found the body of Si-Mara. The fire had not killed her, though, Arnath told them, nor was there any mark on her body. But her face… and the High Priest opened his Perception to them and showed them what he had seen; the Silver Witch, sprawled on her back, her dead body seemingly untouched, but her eyes, those strange silver eyes, wide and staring, and her white face twisted into a mask of terror. Aiel and Arenel gasped in unison at that vision, and as it faded, Aiel’s Perception spoke to his father and son. “The Night Lords were there, the Dancers said they had been ‘invited’. Si-Mara must have called them to her. I think they came with revenge in mind because she had failed them in the matter of Marla and the Bloodstone. They have taken her spirit into Darkness with them.” “Aye” Arnath answered “That was my thought too. What is to be done now, though? You are the Lightstone-Bearer, my son.” “The house and the Night Temple must be pulled down and the place cleared and cleansed again. The Silver Witch cannot be buried in the Temple grounds. I am not sure how to dispose of her body. Even as a Child of Night, she must be decently interred, yet she would defile anywhere she is laid.” “Except the Dark Ruins” Arenel interjected. “She could be taken there , since the place is already cursed.” “Yes, that could be arranged” the High Priest responded, and Aiel concurred that it was a possibility, so they agreed on that, and broke the link of the Thought-without-Words,

As they returned to the others, Aiel and Arenel talked over on the way whether they should tell them what had happened. Arenel thought that it might be best to say nothing, but Aiel said quietly “I agree that we should not say too much, but I think the news of Si-Mara’s death might ease the way for Mellin and Marla. I know he is still anxious lest Si-Mara could harm her in some way.” So when they reached the Hall and sat down, and Janir asked if they had any news, guessing that they would have been in contact with Aranth, Aiel said “Yes”. As all eyes fastened on him, he went on “It seems the fire was in Si-Mara’s house. the Night Temple was uncovered, and they found Si-Mara dead by the Black Altar.” At the mention of Si-Mara, both Marla and Mellin gasped, and the Swordsman half-began to speak, but stopped. Janir, knowing that there was more to this than had been said, cast a quizzical look at Aiel, but also said nothing. It was Krystha, who had returned from tending her babe, who said “So, the Silver Witch is no more”. She glanced at Marla, who said softly “Should I feel sad? I never had any feelings for her.” “Nor she for you!” Mellin answered her, fiercely. “Why should you mourn for her?” “She was a Child of Darkness, and cursed by it” Krystha went on. “Aiel once offered her the Choice of Light, but she mocked him.” “And yet that gave me my seed of Light” Marla said. “But it was none of Si-Mara’s doing”, Mellin reminded her. “We have agreed that she cannot be placed in the Temple grounds or any other holy place, since she was so wholly given to Darkness and had refused Light many times” Aiel carried on speaking. “Arenel said, and we agreed, that the only place to bury her that she could not defile was the Dark Ruins, so she will be taken there.” Krystha shuddered. Even after so long, the things that they, the original Way-Sharers, had experienced in the Dark Ruins, had power to chill her. Lin, seeing it, reached out and laid a hand on her arm. Arentha said, resolutely, “No more talk of dark things, please! We are meant to be preparing for happy times!” The others agreed, and the talk turned back to wedding plans.

Later, though, as they were leaving the Hall to make their way to their various bedchambers, Mellin dropped back to say quietly to Aiel “Is it wrong, Aiel, to feel relief at Si-Mara’s death? Before Light, I would not rejoice at the death of an enemy, even one that meant Marla such great harm, when I know that her spirit has gone into Darkness. But I cannot help but feel that a great shadow has passed from Marla, and so from me.” “I think that is understandable, Mellin”, Aiel told him, ” and there is no evil intent in what you feel, as you say, so you have done no wrong.” Mellin sighed with relief, and said “Thank you, Aiel. Oh, I know that the Darkness that wanted to take Marla was defeated, and since her Changing she is unavailable to the Darkness for any purpose. But still I was afraid that since her plans had been defeated, Si-Mara might try to take some revenge on her – maybe even to kill her!” He gave a weak smile, then, and said “And now that fear is past, Aiel, and I cannot explain how that feels.” Aiel returned the smile, and said “I do not need my Perception to understand that, Mellin.” Then, laying his hand on the Swordsman’s shoulder, he said gently “Go now and sleep, and Light bless your rest.”

In the days leading up to their wedding, it did indeed seem that a shadow had lifted from the young couple with the death of Si-Mara, and the assurance that the Night Lords would not return to Li’is. Mellin was almost his old self again, though he could not be unchanged by all they had experienced. The change in him, though, was all to the good. He had matured, and his love for Marla had made him gentler. Marla herself, after her Changing, had gradually lost the hesitancy and timid nature which had sprung from the Dark heritage which made her unwelcome everywhere. The friendship of her companions, Mellin’s love, but above all the love of Light which had rescued her from the dark plans of Si-Mara and the Children of Night, had brought her to realise her own worth and the value Light placed on her. She had truly become, as Aiel had proclaimed her after the Changing, “Marla of Li’is,Child of Light”. So the wedding day came, and with Alira and Krystha treating Marla with motherly care, and Aila as bridewoman and Zohra as bridemaiden attending her, Marla was made ready. She was a bright vision in her gold-coloured gown, her honey-blonde hair loose and crowned with creamy blossoms. The others stood back to admire their handiwork, and Krystha smiled, and said “You look like a child of Light in truth, Marla!” Marla smiled back, and suddenly clasped her hands over her heart, as if it would burst, and exclaimed “Oh, I am so happy! I never thought I could ever be so happy!” This moved them all, and there were many hugs before bride and attendants straightened themselves and moved out towards the Prayer Room.

Mellin was waiting by the Crucible in his formal wedding garments in the rust colour of the Fortress, his Lordly circlet, and the chain bearing his family badges. Once they had escorted Marla to his side and Mellin had turned to take her hands in his, Aila and Zohra had retired to their places among the guests, Aila to sit with Janir and his family, Zohra with her own family, since Arenel was assisting Aiel with the wedding ceremony. Everyone gathered there now knew of Marla’s Way and its happy conclusion, and there were tears as the ceremony concluded and Aiel declared Mellin and Marla to be wed in the sight of Light. The joy on their faces was so great, and the end of Marla’s story so moving, that nobody could be left untouched. After the ceremony the guests assembled in the Great Hall for the wedding meal, music and dancing. It was becoming expected, now, for Zohra to present one of her own compositions as a wedding gift, so she stood, and took up the harp Arenel had given her, and began to play and sing. Her music, as always, was beautiful, but it seemed that this time she had excelled herself. A deep silence settled over the room, unbroken except for her music, as her audience listened with rapt attention. Something in Zohra’s music touched the deepest of chords in all of them, and only Arenel, who had shared it with her, recognised echoes of some of the themes of the Dancers’ Song of Li’is. When Zohra’s music ended, the rapt silence still held for some moments, and then there was an explosion of applause and congratulations. When she returned to his side, Arenel said “So beautiful, Zohra! You put the Dancers’ Song into your music.” “Yes” she answered, and smiled. “I am so glad you shared the Song with me, Arenel. The Dancers were right when they told me I would be lonely if only I in all Li’is heard it.” “I am glad too” he said. “Not only because it was so beautiful, but because if we had not shared the song I would never have known that you returned my love.” “Nor I that you loved me!” “And the Dancers were right, too, to say that in searching for the beauty of their Song, you would make music such as had never been heard in Li’is.”

Aila had been watching Zohra and Arenel, and Janir, coming back to her after greeting some friends, followed her gaze and said, with a smile, “And those two are next. Never has the City seen such a wedding – a Priest and a Westerner! Nor imagined it.” Aila said “Janir, you know the Westerners so well. How hard will it be for Zohra to leave the West, and all she knows?” He considered, and said “I think it will not be easy for her. But Arenel was wise, to stay among the Westerners and learn their ways, to understand her better. And she must count his love higher than all she knows, or she would not have agreed to be his Lady. It is a new alliance, Aila, and Light must have a meaning in it.” “That is true” she answered, then laughed a little, and said “Does it not seem as though Zohra and I exchange places? She will come to live among the Priesthood in the City, and I will go with you to the Western Fortress, and live among the Westerners in winter time.” “And what of you and Arenel, my heart?” he asked. “I remember how sad you were when he left us on Marla’s Way for a while, and you could not reach his Perception. And now you will lose that bond which you have had all your lives. I am sorry for that.” Aila looked lovingly at Janir, thinking how typical of him that kind thought was, and answered ” We all grow and change, my love, and sister and brother give way to husband and Lady. Arenel has Zohra, and I have you, and though we still love each other as brother and sister, other loves come first now.” Then she smiled, and said, “Pen and ink, too, can say as much, though more slowly. And, at need, there is always the Thought-without-Words.”

A few days more and it was indeed the turn of Arenel and Zohra to wed, and Janir had been right, for there was much interest in the City. The Westerners rarely came to the City, but suddenly it was full of them, coming for the wedding of their Lord’s granddaughter. After initial curiosity, though, the good people of the City were welcoming to their guests, and the Westerners returned their courtesy. When the day came, Arenel was waiting, a little nervously, by the Crucible in the Temple, his father and grandfather waiting too, ready to perform the ceremony. The benches of the Temple were filled with wedding guests, Arenel’s family, friends and fellow Priests and dignitaries from the City on one side, and the Westerners on the other, led by the Ket and his twin sons with their families. The Westerners, most of whom had never seen the Temple, were gazing round in awe. A sudden stir at the Temple door told Arenel that Zohra and her bridewomen Aila and Marla had arrived. He turned to see his bride, gowned in the crimson and gold wedding fabric of the Ket’s family, crowned with flame-flowers, coming towards him, smiling. Aila and Marla accompanied her to Arenel’s side, then went to sit with their own husbands – but not before Aila’s Perception had flashed a happy blessing to her brother’s. Arenel smiled at her, and turned to take Zohra’s hands in his, and Aiel began the wedding ceremony.

When the wedding ceremony was over, and Arenel and Zohra married, while Westerners, Priests and others mingled before moving on to the wedding celebrations, Lin turned to Aiel, and asked “The Secret Word, Aiel – could these marriages be its ending? For it speaks of two and two out of place, and an end of Darkness, and new beginnings. Surely Darkness is ended, and a new life begun, for Marla and Mellin. And” he continued, unknowingly reflecting Aila’s words to Janir, “Zohra leaves her place in the West and comes to the City with Arenel, while Aila goes, as it were, the other way, to the Western Fortress, with Janir.” Aiel looked thoughtful, then answered “I understand your reasoning, Lin. But I do not think the Way of the Secret Word has ended. Yes, Marla is free of Darkness, but though that was a powerful move of Light, I do not believe it has affected all of Ma’al – the Dark World. And yes, ‘two and two’, but what of ‘times and Time’, Lin ? No, I do not think it is finished, yet.” Lin gave a wry smile. “There was time enough between the Lightstone Way and Marla’s Way, Aiel. If there is to be a third Way – we grow no younger, my friend!” Aiel smiled too. “Who knows, Lin? The Lightstone Way was our Way, but our children played a large part in Marla’s Way. Though the Secret Word says I will see its final fulfillment before my days end, perhaps any third Way will fall to our children’s children.” Lin looked curiously at his friend and asked “is that a prophecy, Aiel?”
But the Lightstone-Bearer only answered “Maybe”.


Chapter 13

They spent the rest of that day, and the one following, resting from their journey, and enjoying time with their hosts, now that Marla’s Way had ended. Lin and Mellin, though, were still eager to return to the Mountain Fortress and Krystha, as the time for her to give birth grew ever nearer, and to see for themselves that all was well with her. So it was decided that they should soon set off to return to the City. Aila also wanted to be back with her mother and aunt, but was torn between that wish and her sadness at the prospect of parting from Janir. He too was sad at the thought of Aila leaving, even though the parting would not be long, and when she returned, it would be for their wedding. Everyone else understood how they felt, and made room for them to be together as much as possible. On the evening before their departure, Janir took Aila out into the courtyard, saying he wanted to show her something. She paused as they crossed the courtyard, and looked up at the wall. “What are you thinking, my love?” Janir asked. “I was remembering how you came to comfort me, when I was missing Arenel” Aila answered, “and how you offered yourself as a ‘brother’. I never dreamed then that you would become my betrothed.” “Ah, nor did I!” he responded. “I only thought that if I could never be your love, at least I could be your friend.” “But what did you want to show me?” Aila queried. “Come with me” he said, taking her hand. He led her round the wall of the Fortress to one of its towers, and pointed up at it. “This will be our home, when we are married” he told her. “The suite of rooms in this tower are set aside for me, though I only use one chamber to sleep for now, but they will be prepared for us.” Aila looked up at the tower. As Janir had rightly guessed, showing her their future home made the prospect of their marriage closer and more real, and comforted her over their parting. “Janir, it will seem so long till I see you again” she said. “I know, my heart. I feel the same. But it will not really be so long. It is sad to part, but when you return, we will be married, and then we shall be together always.”

The next morning, as they prepared to set off, despite the partings, there was also some sense of relief that they were returning to their everyday lives. When Janir appeared that morning, he had been back in his Watchward’s livery, the dark blue and golden yellow of the Western Fortress, and Mellin had laughed, and teased his cousin, “So, back to your duties, Sword-Brother!” Aila, though, had thought that the next time she saw him in those colours, it would be for their wedding. She, Mira and Marla had visited the fabric stores and, with Liara’s help, selected the materials for their gowns and their bridemaidens’. Since the needlewomen had their measure, and Zohra’s, already, from Shala’s wedding, there was no more to be done. So now that the time had come to part from her betrothed, she was ready, realising the truth of the fact that it would not really be long, though it might seem so, till their wedding. They still clung together, though, in a farewell embrace, before all the goodbyes and blessings were said, and she and Aiel, Lin, Mellin and Marla, mounted and turned towards the gated of the Western Fortress. Looking back as they left, she saw Janir standing by the gates, watching her out of sight, and waved him farewell once more.

They were all longing to reach home now, but it was more than a day’s journey, and they spent that night in the village inn where they had stayed before. Next morning they set out again, riding up through the trees that were more stunted by the cold winds that sometimes swept this side of the Mountains. It was a steep climb, and a slow passage through the narrow Spearcleft Pass, but at last they were through it and riding down through the Forest above the Fortress, crossing once over a tributary of the White River, following the old hunting trail down past the hunting shelter, through the thinning trees to the Fortress Level. To Aiel and Aila it was as much of a homecoming as to Lin and Mellin, for Arentha was here. Lin made them known to the Swordsmen at the Fortress gates, in their rust-coloured livery, and was greeted gladly. They passed through the gates and dismounted in the courtyard, where their horses were led away, then hurried into the Great Hall. They had sent no word of their arrival, so were not surprised to be greeted only by a steward, who quickly took word to the Lord of the Mountains and his Lady and daughters, while they were provided with refreshing drinks after their journey.

It was not long before Arentha and Krystha came to find them. There was much hugging and kissing, though Krystha laughingly scolded her husband and son for being circumspect in their embraces because of her now advanced pregnancy. “I will not break!” she told them. Then Arentha, noting her son’s absence, anxiously asked Aiel “Aiel – where is Arenel? Is it well with him?” “Very well” her husband assured her. “We have much news to tell, my heart!” At that point Merhaun and Alira arrived, and there were more greetings. Krystha, turning to Marla, realised that her colouring and her eyes had changed, and exclaimed “Marla, you look so different! Is that because you have attained Light! Praise Light!” Marla smiled, and said “Yes, I have attained Light, thanks to the Lightstone-Bearer and the Spirit-in-Light. And I am Changed too , through the Dancers, and the Mercy of Light, and my good friends.” “A Spirit-in-Light?” the Healer gasped, “You have seen a Spirit-in-Light?” Aiel said “We shall tell you all about it, Krystha. But how is it with you?” “Very well” she smiled. “I have had no problems, and the babe is strong within me. And Arentha has taken good care of me”, with an affectionate glance at her sister. They all settled round the table in the centre of the Great Hall, and Lin said “It is hard to know where to begin”. Krystha, seated beside him, demanded “Begin with Marla, and the Spirit-in-Light!” So Aiel told them all the events of that momentous night and morning; the casting out of the Darkness in Marla, with the aid of the Spirit-in-Light, who had strengthened Aiel’s Perception and stood against the Dark Lord which had tried to claim Marla. Then the way in which the Dancers had sung to Marla, Changing her body to alignment with Li’is, and the amazing discovery of Zohra’s ability to hear the Dancers’ Song, and help Marla with the Changing.

It seemed the listeners had been collectively holding their breath during the telling, for there was a great sigh from all of them as Aiel finished. Krystha said, with a glint of tears in her eyes, “Oh Marla, you have endured so much! But I am so glad that you have attained Light!” Alira, who knew the terrors of Darkness and what Marla had escaped, echoed her daughter. Mellin glanced across at Lin questioningly and received a smile and a nod in return. He said “Mother…” Krystha looked at him and asked “What is it, Mellin?” He said quickly “Marla and I have fallen in love, and we are betrothed. Say you are happy for us!” Krystha’s eyes widened in surprise, but then she gave a broad smile, and exclaimed “Very happy, Mellin!” She reached across the table and took Marla’s hand, saying, “I will be glad to have you as a daughter, Marla” then, to her son, “but I own I am surprised, when you were so against her, to begin with. But the Secret Word said that hate would turn to love, and it is true of you!” Mellin flushed a little, still uncomfortable when reminded of his early animosity towards the maiden he now loved, but Marla gave him a loving look which eased his discomfort. Arentha said “But what of Arenel, Aiel? Where is he? Has he gone to the Temple?” Aiel told her “You will have to wait a while to see our son, my heart. He has stayed in the Ket’s camp.” “But why?” Arentha asked, puzzled, and Aila, sorry for her mother, though she knew Aiel was only gently teasing her, said “Mother, he and Zohra are also in love. They have been betrothed by the Ket, and he is staying there for a while to learn their ways. It will be hard for her to leave the West, even to wed him, and he wants to make it easier for her by understanding the customs of her people.”

Arentha gasped “Arenel and Zohra? I never would have thought it!”, then continued “But I am very happy for them. You are right, though, she will find the move to the City hard. We must do all we can to make her welcome.” Now Aila knew it was her turn to make her plans known. She flashed her Perception to her father for help in doing so, and he smiled at her, and said “Arentha, our son is not the only one. Aila…” Before he could finish, Arentha grasped his meaning, and cried “Aila – you and Janir are betrothed too?” Aila laughingly confirmed the fact, and Arentha said “So, I must lose both my children!”, but she was smiling, and went on “I am glad. Janir is a good man, and will make you happy.” Aila told her mother “It seems he has loved me for some years, and would not say, because he believed the affection Mellin and I have for each other was more than that of cousins. But all is resolved now, and I love him dearly.” Aiel added “Besides which, he saved Aila’s life…” and went on to tell them of the attempt on the maidens by the Children of Night. Arentha said “I am thankful that we knew nothing of this! Light be praised that you were all saved!” Krystha said, with a little shudder, “It was the Mercy of Light indeed! What could have happened otherwise…” she broke off, and Lin knew she was remembering the girl in the Dark Ruins, and hugged her, saying “But all is well, my heart!” Turning to happier things, Arentha asked “You will be married at the Western Fortress, then?” “Yes, and I think our wedding must be the first” Aila answered, “for Mellin and Marla will, of course, be married here, and that will have to wait for your babe to be born, Aunt Krystha. And Arenel and Zohra will wed in the Temple. Marla and Zohra and I, we shall be each other’s bridemaidens or bridewomen too, and the fabric for Zohra’s gown must be woven. There is much to plan.” Krystha said, a little sadly, “If you are to wed before I give birth, Aila, it seems I will have to miss your wedding, for I will not be able to travel to the Western Fortress.” Then she brightened, and said “But I shall have Mellin and Marla’s wedding to prepare for, and that will be a joy.”

Aiel smiled at her, and said “Not only has Marla attained Light, she has destroyed the Bloodstone which the Children of Night intended her to wield. She has been Light’s blessing on Li’is.” Krystha said “I knew from the beginning that you were brave and determined, Marla. Light has worked through you. I am glad that you have Mellin’s heart.” Marla seemed moved by Krystha’s words, and thanked her warmly, then said, hesitantly, “But there is one thing…” “What is it, my heart?” Mellin asked her, a little anxiously, and she said quickly “Oh, nothing is wrong, Mellin. But I would like to go to the City and the Temple, even if just once. To be able to enter the Temple as a Child of Light, and give thanks there, would mean so much to me!” Aila could tell that her cousin was torn between wanting to give Marla her wish, and his fear that there might be danger for her in the City, where Si-Mara was. At length he said “Then I will come with you, and you will have my protection, and that of Aiel and the Lightstone..” he looked enquiringly at Aiel, who said “Of course!” So it was agreed that when Aiel, Arentha and Aila left for the City, Mellin and Marla would go too. Lin asked if Mellin wanted him to join them,as extra protection, but his son said “Father, it will be well with us. You have been away from Mother so long, and she needs you here now.” Lin was content with that, for he longed for time with his Lady now, after their time apart. Aiel said, to allay the discomfort he still felt in Mellin at Marla’s venturing to the City, “Aila and I will send the Thought-without-Words to my father, Arnath. The Priesthood will be alert for any Darkness.” In return he received a relieved smile and thanks from his nephew. They separated then, Aiel and Aila to the Prayer Room, Krystha, Alira and Arentha, taking Marla with them, to make arrangements for their returning family and friends, and Lin and Mellin to the stables, to check that all was well with the horses and they would be fresh enough, after all their journeying, for the ride to the City. In the Prayer Room Aiel and Aila made the link of the Thought-without-Words with Arnath in the Temple, telling him the outcome of Marla’s Way far faster than spoken words could. When he learned how Marla had attained Light and destroyed the Bloodstone, he was full of praise to Light, but also for Marla. ‘She is truly a Child of Light, and Light has used her mightily!’ his thought told them. ‘Tell her she will be welcome in the Temple, and that we are thankful to her for her courage in defeating Darkness.’ They assured him that they would pass on his message, and broke the link.

Mellin had just left the stables when he noticed Marla crossing the courtyard. She spoke briefly to the Watchward at the gate, who smiled, nodded, and said something in reply. Marla returned his smile, then turned and climbed the stone staircase that led to the walkway which ran around the top of the wall behind the crenellations and small turrets. She rested her elbows on a flat part of the Fortress wall and looked out over the Forest and the Falls towards the City. Mellin followed her up the stairs and joined her,calling her name as he did, so as not to startle her, and she turned her head to smile at him, then returned to the panorama before her. Mellin said “There is a good view from here.” “Yes” she answered, and pointed across to the City, rising up its hill from the Harbour to the Temple of Light. “There is the City, and it looks so far from here, and yet…Mellin, I am trying to recall.” “What?” he asked. “The start of my Way, of my journey to Light” Marla replied. “I remember that I crept from the house and tried to speak to Aiel at the Temple, but I was afraid. I thought I would wait a little, till I felt stronger. But then Si-Mara summoned me, to tell me about the Bloodstone, and the ceremonies…” her voice shook for a moment, and Mellin took her hand in his, as she went on “and I knew I had no more time. Oh, I was as cunning as Si-Mara that night, for somehow I again escaped her spies and her house. And I thought of Aila. I saw her notice me at the Harbour, and somehow I felt that she was concerned for me even then.” “She was” Mellin confirmed. “Both she and Arenel Perceived that you were lonely, and sorrowful. But when I asked the Harbour Watch, they knew only that you had come from the East and been seasick, so we had to let it rest.” “I knew who Aila was, by then ” Marla continued ” and I felt that I must find her. When I knew that she had gone to the Fortress, I followed. I did not even think to try to speak to Aiel again, it was as though something drew me to Aila – maybe it was Light.” “Surely it was Light!” Mellin exclaimed.

“But that is what I cannot recall, Mellin. Look at the distance from the City. How did I come here , to the Fortress? Did I run, walk, crawl? I do not know. I only know that I fled in terror from Si-Mara, and found myself here, exhausted. And Aila Perceived me, and came to find me.” “She said she saw you step out of the Forest and raise your arms, as if to show her where you were. But then you stepped back into the trees again, and she and Arenel had to use their Perceptions, so we could find where you were. But you were so exhausted and overwrought that you could tell us only the bare facts before you fainted.” Now she turned to smile at him again, and say “And Aila told me how, though you feared and distrusted me then, still you carried me to safety in the Fortress.” Mellin felt uncomfortable at that, and murmured “But I did not know you then.” “Oh Mellin, all that is past. And perhaps I should not be stirring up dark shadows. But I am curious to know how I made that journey. I truly believe now that I had the aid of Light.” He pondered for a moment, and said “Light meant you to find Aila, and Aiel through her, and your Way to Light. It was all written in the Secret Word before any of it came to be. It was what Light ordained for you – for us, Marla, for our love has come out of your Way, and that is Light’s gift also.”

“And I thank Light for it all” she told him seriously. “That is why I long to go to the Temple and give thanks, Mellin. Do you understand that?” “I do, my love” he replied. “I too will rejoice to see you stand in the Temple as a Child of Light.” “The Ladies of the Fortess have been so kind to me also” Marla said ” and made me so welcome. I thank Light for that, for I did wonder if your mother would truly welcome me as your betrothed, but she has shown me such love…” she paused for a moment, with a glimmer of tears in her eyes, then went on “She told me I had never had a real mother, but now that we were to wed, she would be my mother.” Mellin said “And she means it, my heart. She can sometimes be prickly, but her heart is tender.” “And she said that if I wish, she could train me to be a Healer. I would like that, Mellin. They tried to raise me to do harm, but now I can learn to do good.” “You have already done that, Marla! Did you not refuse to be the Bloodstone-wielder, and destroy the Bloodstone? Trust me, my heart, you have done good to all Li’is! Yet it is true that a Healer’s is a worthy craft.” He was glad that his beloved seemed to be growing in confidence, with the love and care she had been shown on her Way, and now on her return. When they all gathered, later, for the evening meal, and Aiel relayed Arnath’s message to her, though, it seemed to have a special significance for her. She seemed very glad of it, and Aiel wondered if she recalled her rejection by the Priest of the Eastern Temple, and if Arnath’s welcome had erased the pain of that memory.

The next morning began a little overcast, but nothing could dampen Marla’s joy. The sky soon brightened, though, and they made their farewells and rode out through the Fortress gates, waving to Lin and Krystha, who stood watching them go. Aila could Perceive Marla’s happiness and excitement at being able to go to the Temple, as no doubt Aiel could also . Mellin too was calm, reassured by the presence of the Lightstone, and as they rode down through the Forest they chatted happily. When they reached the Plain of Blossoms, with its carpet of wild flowers, Marla exclaimed at the beauty of it, and Aila thought, with a pang,that it was probably the first time that Marla had had the freedom from fear that would allow her to enjoy such simple pleasures. Soon they were through the City gates and riding up towards the Temple. Marla did glance once, a little fearfully, at the avenue that led off towards Si-Mara’s house, and Mellin gave her an anxious look, but she turned her head away from that path and gazed resolutely up at the Temple as they rode towards it. Aiel and Arentha led them, first, to their home in the Temple grounds, to dispose of their baggage and put the horses in the care of the Temple stables. Once that was done, the five of them walked through the Priests’ entrance to the Temple, Mellin and Marla hand in hand. Marla’s face was alight with joyful anticipation. Arnath had Perceived their arrival, and was waiting for them by the Crucible. There were others in the Temple, Priests, visitors, those making their way to the Hall of Records, but none of them could know the significance of this moment.

As they approached the High Priest, he turned to Marla with a smile. “I am glad to meet you at last!” he greeted her. “Welcome, Marla of Li’is, Child of Light, Destroyer of the Bloodstone. You have done a great service to Light and to Li’is, and we honour you.” Marla had obviously not expected such a welcome, for she seemed overcome for a moment, then quickly answered “Friend of Light, it was only done by the Mercy of Light and the help of the Lightstone-Bearer and my good friends. I deserve no praise.” “Ah, but you do, child!” Arnath replied. “For you have been constant to Light in the worst of circumstances.” “I have come to give thanks” she told him “that Light has been so good to me, and I have attained Light.” “Come, then” he said, and led her to the Crucible. They all watched quietly as Marla raised her arms in silent praise. What she said in her heart to Light none of them knew, not even those with Perception, for that would have been Trespass. Tears flowed down her cheeks, but they were tears of joy. She was unaware of her companions, even Mellin, of the activity in the Temple. Light, and Light alone, was the focus of her attention. At length she lowered her arms agian, and turned to them. There were still tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling a tender smile. She sighed, and said “Oh, I think I could stay here all day, there is so much in my heart!” Now Aiel signed to her to come to him, and when she did, he drew out the Lightstone and laid it to her brow. The light poured out of the Stone and gently embraced her. “Receive Light’s blessing, Marla” Aiel said, gladly. And when the light withdrew, Marla’s eyes were glowing as she thanked him.

They showed her the rest of the Temple then, all the area surrounding the Crucible, the great stone columns. the quiet Prayer room, the Hall of Records, and she was full of excitement and questions, almost like a child. Aila thought that, in a way, that was what her friend was, a new-born Child of Light, and she was happy for Marla. When Marla had seen all there was to see, they made their way back to Aiel and Arentha’s home. Mellin and Marla would stay overnight, as Mellin could use Arenel’s room, and Marla share with Aila, so Aiel told Marla they could attend the Evening Prayers at the Temple and, depending on the time they would leave, perhaps the Morning Prayers as well, which made her happy. Mellin, wanting to please her, said “Certainly we can wait for the Morning Prayers, my heart.” Arentha, watching Marla chatting happily with her daughter, thought that she was settling more and more into her new life, and felt glad for her. Like Aila, she had been drawn to Marla from the first by compassion, and was happy that everything had been resolved so well for the girl. She noticed, too, the tenderness and patience that Mellin displayed towards his betrothed, and thought to herself that he too had been changed by Marla’s Way. He had matured into a gentler, calmer person, and that was good. As promised, that evening, before the evening meal, they took Marla and Mellin back to the Temple for the Evening Prayers. This time they were among the crowd who had gathered, and Aila wondered if her friend might feel overwhelmed by the others, but she was too taken up in the prayers and music, and with Mellin at her side to help her if she stumbled in the unfamiliar responses, seemed only happy to be taking part. Next day, after they had again gone to the Temple for the Morning Prayers, Mellin and Marla said their goodbyes. Aila hugged her friend and her cousin before they mounted. Aiel and she had both cast out their Perceptions and found no Darkness near, so could reassure Mellin, and the two set off for the Fortress with light hearts. When they had watched them out of sight, Aila and her parents went back indoors. It seemed strange to be back, to be going about their everyday tasks, after Aiel’s and Aila’s involvement with Marla’s Way and Arentha’s stay at the Fortress. Arenel’s continued absence, though, was a reminder that all was not as it was, and changes were coming.

To Aila, the time of preparation for her wedding, though joyful, seemed long. She knew that much was being done at the Western Fortress, where the needlewomen, under Liara’s oversight, were busy with the gowns for the three weddings, including the weaving of the special Western bridal fabric for Zohra. Still, she felt keenly the separation from her beloved Janir, who was at the Western Fortress making ready to receive his bride, and her brother Arenel, who was in the camp of the Westerners with Zohra. Arranging the weddings had taken much thought, especially as Krystha’s pregnancy was now far advanced. Aila and Arentha had made a few visits to the Fortress to visit and confer with Mellin and Marla about the weddings, and to see how Krystha fared. Krystha would not be able to ride to the Western Fortress for Aila’s wedding, which saddened Aila, but it was necessary that hers be the first wedding, since the others would have to return to the City with her and Janir for the other two. Mellin and Marla would wed in the Fortress, and Arenel and Zohra in the Temple. At last the time came to ride West, but first the party stopped at the Fortress, to collect Lin, Mellin and Marla. Aila spent some time with her aunt, receiving advice and blessing, and when it was time to go, hugged Krystha and said, wistfully, “I wish you could be there,” “I will be there” Krystha assured her. “My spirit will be with you – and Janir. And I will see you soon.”

Aiel and Arentha, Lin, Mellin and Marla were accompanying Aila. The weather was good and they came over the Spearcleft Pass and down to the edge of the Great Moor with no difficulties. Now they turned Westwards across the Moor. That night they rested in one of the villages that edged the Moor, and in the morning set off again, passing from the green grazing land around the villages to the golden fields of the Western Farmlands. They could see the distant rise of the Western Mountains and the Westerners’ Plateau to their right, and ahead of them, though still tiny and far off, the Western Fortress on its rise by the Snake River, like an island among the sea of grain. As they came nearer, they could see the silvery glint of the River. Aila, impatient to see her love and her brother, found the going slow, and reached out her Perception, seeking Arenel. His Perception must have been extended too, for she found him almost instantly. ‘Arenel – how is it with you? And Zohra? And how is Janir?’ His thought answered hers ‘It is well with us both. And Janir…’ there was a bubble of laughter in his thought… ‘is sick with impatience to see you, but otherwise it is well with him, too.’ ‘Arenel, tell him I will be with him soon. Tell him that I love him!’ ‘That I think he knows! But I will tell him. Light be with you till we meet, Aila.’ ‘And with you, Arenel’ she answered, and broke the contact.

It was not really so long before they passed through the fields below and were at the gate of the Western Fortress. Lin spoke the word of entry to the Watchwards, and the gate opened, and the party passed through. Outside the entrance to the Great hall stood Barengian and Mira, Janir, Arenel and Zohra. All of them were smiling, but Janir’s face seemed alight with joy. Before Aila could dismount, he had run to lift her from the saddle and hold her tightly to him, forgetting all the others. Aila twined her arms round his neck and lifted her face for his kiss, her Perception gathering a background of affectionate amusement from her father and brother. When Janir released her and turned, apologetically and belatedly, to greet her father and mother, hug Marla, and give Lin and Mellin the Swordsmen’s handclasp, Aila turned to her brother. As he held out his arms to embrace her, she saw the gleam of a gold, open-ended bracelet on his wrist, and teased him, “So, you are a Westerner now!” “Of course” Zohra said, quite seriously. “We were betrothed in the manner of the Westerners, as you saw, and Arenel is of my people, now. He is brother to all of the West.” Aiel, coming up behind Aila, said thoughtfully “Light is making new links, new alliances and brotherhoods. I wonder what is to come of this? For there is still a part of the Secret Word unfulfilled.” He smiled, then, and said “We must leave all to the Will of Light.”

Two mornings later, Aila stood in Mira’s own bedchamber, with Mira and Arentha helping her dress for her wedding. Marla and Zohra, her bridemaidens, were there too, though Zohra would leave them for a while to greet her brother and Shala, the Ket, and the rest of her family, who would be arriving soon. Aila’s gown was a deep rose colour, and threw a warm glow on her face. Zohra and Marla wore gowns of a soft green that suited Marla’s honey coloured hair and green eyes as well as it did Zohra’s dark hair and eyes and golden skin. A tap at the door brought the message that Zohra’s kin had arrived, and she slipped away to greet them, while Mira hung eardrops and a necklace of gold set with white and golden sea-jewels on Aila, and Arentha brushed out her daughter’s long dark hair in a shining veil. “I never thought to see another bride in this place so soon” Mira said, smiling at Aila, “nor did I know how long and secretly my son had been in love with you, Aila. But you will make him happy, I know, and he you.” “I will try my best” Aila answered. “I do love him, Mira…” and to her own surprise her eyes suddenly flooded with tears, though not of sorrow. Zohra reappeared, carrying a large covered basket. It was full of flowers, laid carefully on sacking that was wet and cold, because it had been wrapped round snow from the peaks of the mountains where the flowers had been gathered early that morning. There were mountain lilies, white and waxy, for her own hair and Marla’s, but for Aila there were blossoms the deep rose of her gown, with whorls of perfumed petals. The three friends, standing together looked, as Mira said, like one great flower, Aila at the centre in the warm colours of her gown and flowers, Marla and Zohra like leaves of cool green and white. Arentha said “Oh Aila, you look so beautiful!” and took her daughter in a loving embrace. Then, looking at the other girls, she added “And your bridemaidens too.” Another tap on the door heralded the arrival of Aiel, come to see that all was well with his daughter. When they let him in, he gazed at Aila in wonder, not just because she was so lovely, but because she was so like Arentha on their own wedding day.” “Aila…” he began, and could not speak. Instead his eyes caught hers, and his Perception flashed to hers all the love and pride and blessings he could find no words for. Then he smiled, and said “You are almost as beautiful as your mother was on our wedding day”, and took Arentha’s hand, and kissed it.

To Aila there was a dream-like quality about this day, though she was surrounded by love and joy. When she came down to the Prayer Room, with Mira and Arentha leading her to her bridegroom, her bridemaidens following, it seemed to her as if the whole room, the people in it, the flowers and lamps, were somewhat unreal. Only the tall flame of the Crucible, and Janir beside it, waiting for her, the focus of her attention, seemed fully real and solid. Even Arentha and Mira and Marla and Zohra, standing behind her, seemed strangely distant. Janir turned to smile at her, and she thought that he too looked as though he felt the same. Aila was glad that it was her father and brother who were conducting the wedding ceremonies; a strange Priest would have made it seem even more like a dream. At the end, though, when the ceremonies were completed, there was one moment of piercing clarity, when her father declared them one, and Janir bent to kiss her, and then say, softly but with a fierce pride, “Aila, my Lady!” and she knew that now and forever, nothing could part them. Then there was Zohra’s beautiful music, and feasting, and gifts, and blessings, but all of it was a warm sea of affection in which she drifted. She said the right things to the right people, and smiled, and embraced, and was embraced, but again, it was only Janir, at her side – as he always would be, now, she knew- who seemed wholly real. Night came, and Arentha and Mira took her to the suite of rooms she was to share with Janir, and, as they had dressed her in the morning, now undressed and tended her. Arentha asked her daughter lovingly “Is it well with you, Aila? You are not afraid?” “Of Janir?” Aila exclaimed, in amazement “Oh, never!But..” she paused, then tried to explain to her mother and Janir’s how she had been feeling that day. To her relief they laughed and reassured them that each of them, to some extent, had felt the same on their own wedding days. “And like enough” said Mira gently “it is the same with Janir.” Aila remembered the strange look on Janir’s face, her feeling that for him too the day had seemed slightly unreal. “Then we will understand each other” she said.

Still, she found she did feel a little nervous, after all, when Arentha and Mira, having helped her dress in her nightgown, and embraced her, and blessed her, left her alone in the bridal chamber. She went to the window and looked out. It was the time of the Shield’s full moon, and bright moonlight poured through the window and across the placid landscape outside. Its serene beauty calmed her, and when she heard a movement in the room behind her, and knew that Janir had come to her, she turned to him with a tender smile. She stood between lamplight and moonlight, not knowing how lovely she looked, with the golden lamplight casting a glow on her face and lighting her vivid blue eyes, and the moonlight spilling a silver gloss on her dark hair. Janir was staring at her as if some enchantment held him. Was it the moonlight, or did he seem pale? There was strangeness, too, in his eyes, as if something hurt him. She spoke his name, gently, but it was a question too. Janir took a deep breath, and said “Aila – you are so beautiful!” He placed a clenched fist over his heart in an unconscious gesture, as he went on “It stabs me like a knife! I did not know that joy could bite as deep as pain.” Then, softly, “And I have loved and longed for you so much that I am almost afraid I may waken and find this is only a dream.” She moved closer to him and said, “I have sometimes felt the same, today. But it is no dream.” Putting her arms round his neck, she twined her fingers in the curls of his hair and tugged, half-laughing, half reassuring him still. “See, I am real, I am here. I am Aila, your Lady. And you are Janir, my husband.” As she said it, she realised that in all this long wedding day, it was the first time she had called him that. Suddenly, his arms tightened on her with fierce possessiveness, and he bent his head to kiss her until she could scarcely breathe. When his head lifted again, he said, with joyous triumph, “Yes, I am your husband. And you are my Lady, and my dear love.”


Chapter 12

The next day Aiel and Lin began to talk about plans for the homeward journey, for now Lin was anxious to be back with Krystha as her pregnancy advanced. Most of the others happily agreed, for they had wedding plans to make. For Arenel, though, the return journey meant only that every step would take him nearer to parting from Zohra, in all likelihood forever. Zohra, too, seemed less enthusiastic than the others, though she had often spoken of missing her people and their ways. Arenel, watching her covertly, saw her gazing through the windows of the Gatehouse that faced the Dancers’ Mountain, her gaze lingering on the Meeting Place. That was the hunger in her heart, then, Arenel guessed – no human love, but the longing to hear again that music which only she could hear, and which surpassed all other melody in Li’is for her. ‘I must watch her, so that she does not come to harm’ Arenel thought to himself. Though Aiel had not forbidden Zohra to listen again to the Dancers’ Song, he had suggested that perhaps it might not be wise. “But yours is the gift, and you must seek Light to decide what to do with it” he had concluded. Arenel felt that Zohra did not truly know either. If the gift had been given to her only for the sake of Marla’s Way, would Light now take it back? Or if not, and she went to the Dancers, would they refuse to sing to her again? ‘The Dancers are wise’ Arenel comforted himself. ‘If Zohra does go to them, they will not do anything that could harm her.’

It seemed to Arenel, as the day went on, that Zohra was particularly restless, and once he noticed her staring up at the Meeting Place again. For a moment there was such a look of determination on her face, such a glow in her eyes, that he knew she would go to the Dancers. He must watch out for her going, he thought again, and follow her, to see that she came to no harm on the mountain path. Still, in the end she almost evaded him, for she was a Westerner, with all her people’s skills, and she slipped away like a shadow, almost between one breath and another, so that one moment she was standing nearby, and the next, she had gone. Arenel, who had been talking to Mellin, made some excuse and hurried after her. It was late in the day now, close to dusk, and he was concerned for Zohra, lest night catch her alone on the Mountain. He cast out his Perception and found her, as he had known she would be, out in the Gardens and hurrying towards the Dancers’ Gate. Arenel ran through the Gardens, reached the Gate, which stood ajar, and saw the whisk of Zohra’s gown ahead of him on the mountain path. Arenel climbed as quickly as he dared up the narrow path after Zohra, but she was quick and nimble and had a good start. By the time he reached the Meeting Place she was already standing in the middle of the rocky shelf. Arenel called her name, and she spun round. “Arenel, go back!” she cried. “You will not change my mind.” “You have come to hear the Dancers’ Song again?” “Yes – oh, I must, whatever Aiel says!” she cried, defiantly, then added, more calmly, “That is, if they will sing for me.” “I do not wish to change your mind” Arenel said. “But I will stay with you.” “Why?” she asked.”I will not need protection, with the Dancers. And even if I did, you are no Swordsman.”

He knew she had not meant her words to hurt him, but they did. He was not a Swordsman; did that, to this child of the valiant Westerners, make him less of a man? He answered “No, I am not a Swordsman. But as Aiel my father said, you do not know what the Dancers’ Song may do to your spirit. You may have need of my Perception.” Then he added “And I am your friend – am I not? For friendship’s sake, I will stay with you.” Zohra smiled at him then, and said “You are my friend, in truth. Stay then, and welcome.” She turned again, lifting head and arms, her dark hair blowing back on the breeze that swept the Meeting Place. “Dancers” she called “Hear me!” After a moment one of the shimmering blue-green flame-shapes appeared, towering over the slender figure of the girl. Both Zohra and Arenel ‘heard’ its thought. “What do you ask of us, child of the West?” “To hear your Song again, Dancer.” “Wait” the light-being ‘said’ “We must see if it is permitted”, and vanished. After a brief pause it – or another, they could not tell – reappeared. “Zohra of the West” the Dancer’s thought came to them “it is permitted, but once more only may we sing to you, lest our Song become as a drug to you. For no other music will ever satisfy you again. Yet because you search for the perfection of the Dancers’ Song, in the searching you will make such music as was never before heard in Li’is. Do you agree to this?” “Oh yes, I agree!” Zohra cried. “But you must be warned also that you will be lonely in this, because no other will have heard our Song. In all of Li’is you alone have this gift.” Zohra asked, “Dancer, must this be? Here is Arenel, my friend. If I might share the Song with him, through his Perception-?” “That is his choice” the Dancer answered. “If he wishes it too, you may.” Arenel was swept by joy. Why Zohra wished to share with him something as precious to her as the Dancers’ Song, he could not imagine, but was very glad that it was so. “Then, I do wish it” he answered.

“Prepare yourselves” the Dancer told them. “We will sing to you the Song of Li’is, for that is the only Song that it is lawful for you to hear.” Zohra turned towards Arenel, lifting her face to his. He felt love and longing for her tug at him, but thrust his feelings aside so that his Perception would not betray them to her. Then he set his vivid blue eyes on her lovely dark ones and let his Perception flow, feeling their thoughts mesh, careful not to Trespass beyond the limits her mind set for him. He felt a sense of welcome to him in her mind, the feeling that they were setting out on an adventure together. He was, outwardly, faintly aware that the sun was sinking fast, the long reddish-golden rays casting strange shadows across the Meeting Place, and briefly hoped that they would not have to scramble back down the steep path in the dark. Inwardly, though, he felt Zohra’s excited anticipation, and then the Dancers’ Song began, and he was instantly, completely, caught up in it. The Song the Dancers sang was the Song of Arenel’s own world, of the rhythms and melodies and unseen powers of Light that held all things in place. All of creation had its own theme, from the crashing thunder of the Two-Moon Tide to the fragile, delicate whispers of flowers. Because Arenel and Zohra were part of Li’is, and their world of them, each theme and harmony found an echo in their very flesh and blood. To each of them the Dancers sang the only human theme they were permitted to hear, their own, and touched in them the deepest chord of all. When the Song reached, not its end, for it was unending, but the completion of one perfect cycle, the Dancers called them gently back to themselves, lest they be lost in the thrall of the Song. The light-beings disappeared, and they were alone. Arenel found himself holding both of Zohra’s hands. His cheeks were wet with tears, and when he loosed Zohra from his Perception and looked at her, he saw that she too had wept.

At first he thought that no time at all had passed, for the same reddish sunlight lit the Meeting Place. Then he realised that the shadows lay the other way, that the sun was rising, not setting. From sunset to sunrise they had stood listening to the Dancers’ Song. Zohra shivered a little as a chill dawn wind snaked across the rock shelf, stirring her hair and the skirts of her gown. Arenel moved closer, slipping an arm round her shoulders to warm her. They smiled at each other almost shyly, and Arenel said “Zohra, thank you for sharing the Dancers’ Song with me. It was so beautiful!” “Thank you for standing with me, Arenel.” “You have a wonderful gift, to be able to hear their Song.” She sighed. “Yes, it is wonderful- but the Dancer was right, it is a lonely thing too. Imagine if you alone in all Li’is had Perception, Arenel!” “But you are not alone, Zohra. You shared the Song with me, and now it binds us always.” It was a sweet thought to him that though she might never know of or return his love for her, he had at least one thing that he alone had shared with her. To his surprise, though, Zohra blushed hotly red at his words, and exclaimed “Oh Arenel, I had not thought -truly! You cannot believe that I would mean to -to tie you to me so!” Confused, he began “Why, Zohra, I did not mean that at all – only that to share a thing so wonderful…” and then he stopped, because now her dark eyes were filling with tears and she turned her head away from him. Miserably he thought “I have spoiled the Dancers’ Song for her!”

He did not know that his tenderness towards her strayed into his voice, he was too concerned for Zohra, as he asked “Zohra, sweet, what is it? Do not be afraid of me – you know I would not hurt you.” He reached out and gently lifted her averted face, speaking his thoughts aloud. “I am so sorry- I have spoiled the Song for you with my clumsy words.” She was forced, now, to look at him. She did not answer, only whispered his name, but the way she said it and the look in her eyes were such that he knew, as surely as if he Perceived it, what lay behind her tears and blushes and confusion. Hope leapt wildly in him, but still his voice was quiet and tender. “Oh Zohra, my flower of the West! How long has it been, that you loved me, and would not say?” Another tide of crimson flooded her face, but she did not deny what he said. With downcast eyes she murmured “Since – since you gave me your harp, when the Warrior-Children broke mine.” And the joy was a soaring thing singing in him, as gently still he said again “Zohra, my heart, do not be afraid”, then, “I love you too.” She lifted wide startled eyes to him. “You love me? But I am a wild Westerner, not like your City maidens, Arenel? How should you love me?” He smiled at her, wanting to laugh, to shout, for joy. “And I am a quiet Priest, Zohra, not a warrior like the Westerners. How should you love me ?” He drew her close to him then, and though he had never kissed a maiden in love before, it seemed his inexpertise did not matter to Zohra.

What Arenel and Zohra had not anticipated, because they had not known they would be away so long, was the consternation they had caused in the Gatehouse. They had not been missed until the time of the evening meal, and since it was dark by then , nobody had suspected, at first, that they might be up on the Meeting Place. Moreover, since Aiel’s Perception was meshed into Zohra’s hearing of the Dancers’ Song, and neither was aware of anything else, neither Aiel nor Aila could reach Arenel with their Perception. This frightened them all, because there was nothing that should have prevented their contact with Arenel, unless he was far away, which was impossible, or unconscious-or dead. The last possibility was too dreadful to contemplate, and they racked their brains for an explanation. “He must be with Zohra!” Aila exclaimed. “She is his friend and he would not let her go off somewhere outside alone.” “But where could they be?” Mellin asked.”Where could they go that you or Aiel could not reach with your Perception?” “After Tamat…” Lin said soberly, paused, then asked “Aiel, could they have been abducted?” “But there is no Darkness near” Aiel answered. “Even with the Lightstone’s aid, I can find no trace of Darkness.” Marla asked “I do not understand your Perception, Aiel. There is nothing that could block it? A mountain or a cave?” “Nothing but distance, or the other’s Perception being unable to respond” Aiel answered. “Which is where we began” Janir said unhappily. “Arenel must have met with some accident.” “And if Zohra is with him, she would stay with him, to tend him” Aila said. “We must search!” Mellin declared. “But where?” Lin asked. “It is dark. We may search the gardens, but we cannot venture on the mountain in the dark, even with torches.”

So a thorough search was made of the Gardens, and the Gatehouse too. It took time, for the Gardens were extensive, but there was no sign of the missing pair. One of the Gatekeeper’s Watchwards, though, brought news. “The Gate to the Dancers’ Path has been opened” he reported. “Zohra wanted to hear the Dancers’ Song again!” Aila exclaimed, ” and Arenel would not have let her go alone.” “Then they are on the mountain” Janir said. “We must go and find them!” Mellin cried, but the Gatekeeper checked him. “You cannot climb the Dancers’ Path by night” he told them. “If Arenel and Zohra are with the Dancers, they are safe. And if any harm had come to them, the Dancers would have told us.” In view of the Gatekeeper’s words, they agreed to wait till dawn, but the restriction chafed them all, and none of them could go to bed. Lady Benika brought them warming drinks, which were all but ignored. They stayed together in an anxious group. Aiel sat gazing into the Lightstone, though whether he was drawing calming from it, or using it to augment his Perception in seeking his son’s, they did not know. Lin was restless, constantly glancing up at the windows for signs of the lightening sky. Mellin sat with Marla. There was tension in every line of his body but he was quiet and still because Marla, weary, but adamantly refusing to rest till the lost ones were found, was held in the curve of his arm, her head drooping on his shoulder. Janir was holding Aila’s hands tightly, but she was only dimly aware of him as she cast out her Perception over and over again, seeking her brother. ‘Arenel…Arenel…’ As soon as there began to be a pallor on the horizon, Lin was making plans. “We will go up to the Meeting Place first. If they are not there…” he paused, and said to Tor-Harat “Is there any place where they could have stumbled from the Path? Where perhaps the Dancers would not find them?” Tor-Harat shook his head. “No, I am sure the Dancers would know if Arenel and Zohra were on the mountain, and in danger.” “Then…” Lin began, but stopped, startled, as Aila suddenly cried out “Arenel!”

Arenel, standing on the Meeting Place with Zohra, still half-bemused by the Dancers’ Song, and the discovery of her love for him, suddenly became aware of something nibbling at the edges of his Perception, and automatically opened his mind to his sister’s. Immediately Aila was in his thought in a rush of relieved and questioning emotion, a Thought-without-Words indeed, and his response was as immediate and formless. Moments later he became aware of his father’s Perception too, much more coherent, mingling anger and relief. ‘Arenel- Sweet Light, where have you been all this night? Is Zohra with you? Is it well with you both?’ ‘Yes- yes, Father, we are both here, and well. We have been with the Dancers.’ ‘Why could Aila and I not reach your Perception before? We were anxious that you might have met with an accident.’ ‘Oh, Father, I am sorry! Zohra wished to hear the Dancers’ Song again, and she asked if I might link with her through my Perception and hear it too. And the Song was so beautiful, it held us both, and lasted the night through, though it seemed like minutes only.’ ‘Come down now’ Aiel commanded.’Let us see that all is well with you both.’ ‘It is well with us.’ Arenel assured his father, and felt a relieved and oddly amused undertone to his father’s thought.’We will come down’ he added, and Aiel broke the contact. Arenel relayed what had been said to Zohra, who was immediately contrite over the others’ concern, though he knew she would have done it all again, to hear the Dancers’ Song. Before they set off down the mountain, though, he kissed her once more,just to be sure he had not imagined her confession of love for him.

Aila, in those first emotional, tumultuous moments of the link with her brother, had found herself pouring out to him her fear and love for him and her joy at finding him again, and had received in return not only loving reassurance and warmth, but a taste of the beauty and power of the Dancers’ Song. And also, because it was bubbling over inside him and he was longing to share it, the secret of his long-cherished love for Zohra, and his joy at finding that the Westerner loved him too. And that, Aila thought to herself, was the reason for her brother’s strange moods the last couple of days. He must have been dreading the return home that must take him away from Zohra, but now all was well with them. As she thought it, her father’s Perception lightly touched hers, and she realised that he too had been made aware of Arenel and Zohra’s feelings for each other. The rest of them had waited, still concerned, while Aila and Aiel had used their Perceptions, and were relieved to be told what had happened to Arenel and Zohra, and that they had come to no harm. Still wishing to see for themselves, though, they followed Aiel out into the Gatehouse entrance hall to wait for the couple to appear.

As the two of them descended the Dancers’ Path, Arenel voiced the doubts that still troubled him. “Zohra, my heart.. if I ask you to be my Lady, is it the Ket who must agree to our betrothal? And will he agree? I am not a Westerner.” “First” she said, very demurely, but with that flash of hidden laughter that he loved, “you must ask me, Arenel!” “Zohra – oh, what am I thinking!” he exclaimed. “It is just that I – I love you so, and I was so sure it was hopeless – oh, Zohra, will you be my Lady?” “Of course” she said simply, “and yes, the Ket must agree, because I am of his blood. But I have a father, and an uncle, and cousins – and now my brother Ket-Tal and Shala are married, their sons too, and it is unlikely that any -any son of mine”…and she was suddenly shy…”should be the Ket’s heir.” “It would be impossible” Arenel told her “for if we marry, any son we had would have a different heritage, being born to the Priesthood, and having Perception.” “Oh, I had forgotten!” she said, and laughed. “Zohra, love, are you really sure about this?” he asked gently. “Do you want to marry me and have sons who will never be among the Warrior-Children of the West? And I am heir, after Aiel my father, to the High Priesthood of the Temple. That is where I must be. Can you bear to leave the lands of your people, that you said you were so homesick for, to come with me to the City and the Temple, and never to live in the West again?” “For you, yes” she answered. There was a little tremor in her voice as she added “Do you doubt me, Arenel? Yes, I will miss my people and my lands. But I would miss you more, if I stayed with them and let you go.”

They had reached the bottom of the Path now. Arenel held the Gate open for Zohra, then followed her through, back into the Gatehouse Gardens. Then he said “I do not doubt you, Zohra. But I want you to be happy. If you are sure that you will be happy to leave your own place, and come with me as my Lady – oh, Zohra, if you love me that much I am very glad.” She stopped and turned to him, lifting a face suddenly intense and serious to his. “I do love you that much, Arenel. And I will be happy if I am with you, if I am your Lady.” “Oh, Zohra!” he exclaimed again, and held her close and kissed her, under the sweet-scented trees of the Gardens. Then, feeling quite light-hearted with joy, he took her hand again and said “Come, we must get back to the Gatehouse.” And somehow they began to run, hand in hand like children, arriving back at the Gatehouse breathless, still laughing, so exuberant with love and joy and the still bubbling echoes of the beautiful Dancers’ Song that they had to pause outside the doorway to compose themselves before they could face the others. As they entered the Gatehouse, their friends and family crowded round them, and Aila hugged them both. “Praise Light you are both safe!” Lin exclaimed. Zohra said “Oh, I am sorry to have caused you all such concern! I wanted to hear the Song again, and did not know it would last so long. And Arenel is not to blame, he only followed me to see that I came to no harm, and it was my idea that he should share the Song with me. I did not think it might mean that you could not reach his Perception.” Aiel told her “You should have told us you were going, child. I would not have prevented you. But no talk of blame, all is well with you both and if you were with the Dancers you were kept safe.” Lady Benika commented “It is early still, and none of you have slept. I advise you to go and rest now, and I will have you woken for the midday meal.” Her advice was sound, and they quickly followed it, since all were weary with the night’s concerns and emotions. Even Arenel and Zohra, who had each thought they would never sleep with the excitement of their new-found love and the Dancers’ Song, once settled in the rooms they had been using, soon fell asleep.

As promised, Lady Benika sent her stewards to call them, though she left it till some time past midday, and once they had all bathed and dressed, feeling refreshed by their sleep., they assembled in the Great hall for their meal. Once they had eaten and were now feeling more relaxed, the conversation turned to Zohra and Arenel’s adventure. Mellin asked “Only Zohra can hear the Song, but if you could share it with her by Perception, Arenel, could you not share it in turn?” Arenel said “No, I do not think that would be right, Mellin. The Dancers had to make sure that it was permitted by Light that they sing to us. The Song is sacred to Light, not just a melody. It is the very rhythm of all life.” Mellin and the others accepted this, and Zohra added “And the Dancers said they would only be allowed to sing to me that one time more.” “Oh, that must make you sad!” Marla said. “Yes, but the Dancers also said that because I would always seek the perfection of their Song, I would make such music as had never been heard in Li’is. I could not ask more than that.” Janir asked “But who will hear your wonderful music, Zohra? Your father himself said that many of the Westerners did not understand your gift of music, and even when you come to us at the Western Fortress for the winter, there are not that many there. It would be a pity for your beautiful music to remain unheard!”

Arenel glanced quickly at Zohra, then said “Zohra’s music may well have a wider hearing than that, Janir. For we love each other, and she has said she will be my Lady, if the Ket agrees. And then she will be with me in the City, and there will be many to hear her music.” Aiel and Aila had of course already Perceived Arenel’s involuntary sharing of the news of his and Zohra’s love, but joined in the chorus of exclamations and congratulations that Arenel’s announcement caused. “So now we must prepare for three weddings!” Mellin laughed. “Truly, Light is love, and the bringer of love.” Janir said, in his thoughtful way, “I am glad for you both. But you will find the City strange after the grasslands of the West, Zohra.” Arenel said “I told her so, Janir, and asked if she was sure. But she said she would rather leave the West and come with me, than stay and let me go without her.” Zohra smiled at him, and said “I shall be happy where Arenel is. He will teach me the ways of the City, and I will teach him the ways of the West. ” That stirred a memory in Aila, and she asked “Zohra, what was that the Gatekeeper called your people when we arrived here – the Ketai?” Zohra nodded, and said “It is a very old name, a traditional name, for my people. We rarely use it now, except for special ceremonies, such as when a new Ket is installed, since we are known to all as the Westerners. But there is a legend…” She paused and looked round at them, to see if they were interested, and Janir said, “Go on, Zohra. I thought I knew the Westerners, but I have never heard of this legend. What is it?” “It is said” she continued ” that in ancient times, the First Days, when the Lightfriends came into Li’is from Ma’al, they brought with them a warrior race loyal to Light, to protect them, and those were the Ketai, the ancestors of my people.” Aiel said, pondering this, “I have heard other versions of that legend in other places, Zohra. It may well be true, for after the defeat of the darkness in Li’is, there was much to be done to restore and rebuild, and some of the histories of that time were lost.”

The whole party, now, were eager to set off for home, with the prospect of three weddings and the birth of Lin and Krystha’s babe ahead of them. With Tamat dead and Si-Mara confined to the City, there was no threat of revenge from the leaderless Children of Night against either Marla or Aiel, and they were confident of a safe journey. Still, in all wisdom, Aiel decreed that they should rest a few days more at the Gatehouse, to recover from the tumultuous events they had experienced, and in Mellin and Marla’s case, the physical effects of Marla’s Changing and the attack on them both by Tamat. The enforced rest was not so hard, for with their loves finally acknowledge and betrothals made, the three young couples had much to discuss and plan, and Aiel and Lin were able to relax and enjoy the happy atmosphere, and advise, if asked. At last though, on a sunny morning, they bade farewell to Tor-Harat and Lady Benika and left the Gatehouse. They would retrace their route as far as the Merchant Town, then up to the Plateau of the Westerners. The weather was warmer now, and with no threat of danger they would be able to make camp in comparative comfort and security. They stayed that night in the caves where they had sheltered before, then pressed on with their journey. Marla had no need of special care this time, for she was now ‘Marla of Li’is’ and the blood heritage of Ma’al, that had made her always a little weak, had gone. So they made good progress, and eventually arrived at the Merchant Town. It was natural that the menfolk should wonder whether the maidens, in view if what had happened to them here, should have troubled memories of the Faring House, but they seemed unaffected. Janir, when alone with Aila, did gently question her about it, but she smiled at him and said “Janir, my heart, that is all past now. My only memories of this place are happy, for it was here that I learned of your love.”

Once they left the Faring House and the Merchant Town, their way lay upwards towards the Plateau of the Westerners, and Arenel began to feel a little apprehensive. Soon they would reach the Ket’s camp, and he must ask for the Ket’s approval of his betrothal to Zohra. He was still half afraid, despite Zohra’s assurances, that the Ket might forbid it, since he was not a Swordsman, was indeed forbidden weapons by his Priestly heritage and vows. Zohra had laughingly told him that she would wed him whether or not the Ket agreed, but he knew that if that happened, he would be setting her kin and her people against her, and the thought troubled him. They reached the Ket’s Pillars, which marked the end of the Westerners’ lands, near nightfall, prepared to make camp, but found a group of herders there, who gladly shared their shelter with Zohra and her friends. In return, they shared their provisions with the herders, and the evening passed pleasantly. They slept well, and next morning set out again for the Ket’s camp. It was enjoyable riding on the lush grass of the Plateau with the high skies above them and the sun warm on their backs. Zohra was excitedly looking forward to seeing her family again, and gave a little cry of joy as the tents and pavilions of the camp began to appear in the distance. It was not long before they were among the outlying tents, and the message of their return began to be passed. By the time they reached the Ket’s own pavilion, he and his family were waiting outside for them. As they dismounted, Zohra was immediately claimed and embraced by her parents, and Arenel wondered once more if they would be willing to give her up again. “Lightstone-Bearer, welcome!” the Ket said. “And what of Marla? Did you succeed? Is it well with her?” Aiel smiled and brought Marla forward. “Yes, Lord Ket. Marla is free now of Darkness, and of the taint of Ma’al. She is a Child of Light and of Li’is, and she has destroyed the Bloodstone that they would have made her wield.” The Ket said “I am glad of it. Marla, we salute you. You have done a great service to Li’is.” Marla replied “Thank you, Lord Ket. But I could never have achieved Light without the aid of the Lightstone-Bearer. It is him you should thank.”

The Ket smiled at her, and answered “No doubt all have had a part to play. I am glad that Zohra was able to help you too.” “Zohra” Aiel told him “has an amazing Gifting of Light, Lord Ket. Her music is beautiful, but more than that – she was able to hear the Dancers’ Song.” The Ket looked across at his granddaughter in astonishment and asked her “Zohra- truly?” “Yes, Grandfather. That was why I was needed on Marla’s Way, to help the Dancers sing her body into tune with Li’is. And once more after that they sang to me, but they never will again.” Her father said “A Gifting of Light indeed, Zohra. But why will you never hear them again?” “They said it was because their Song might become like drug to me, but because of it I will make such music as was never heard in Li’is. Only I , in all of Li’is, can hear them ” she added, “but Arenel was with me when they sang to me, and we shared the Song through his Perception. So he has heard it too.” Arenel agreed “I did, Lord Ket. It was the most wonderful thing I have ever heard.” “You must tell us all about it, later” the Ket replied. “But for now, you will need to rest and refresh yourselves. We will prepare tents for you, and later there will be a meal to welcome you.” Zohra was carried off by her family, and the others, taken into the Ket’s pavilion, were served drinks to refresh them after their journey, and offered places to sit and relax if they wished. Aiel, though, said that if possible he would like to meet Taran again, and Janir wanted to see his sister Shala. So Aiel, Janir and Aila went to Ket-Tal’s tent, and the young Westerner happily agreed to take Aiel to see Taran. Left alone with Shala, Janir and Aila confided in her the news of their betrothal. Shala was overjoyed, but promised to keep it a secret for now, until Janir’s and her parents were told.

Ket-Tal led Aiel to where the Sword-Trainers were working with their young charges, and called out “Taran!” The Sword-Trainer turned, and Ket-Tal called again “Come and meet an old friend!” As Taran came closer, he realised who was with Ket-Tal, and exclaimed “Lightstone-Bearer! Oh, it is good to see you again!” “And you, Taran” Aiel smiled. “Arenel brought me your message, and I thank you. I am glad to see you so well.” “You and Light have brought me all I ever wanted” Taran told him “and I praise Light, and love you for being the means of Light’s blessing to me.” They chatted for a while, but then Taran had to return to his duties. Ket-Tal said to Aiel, as they walked back towards the Ket’s tent “I have heard Taran’s tale many times. It is still as fresh and joyous to him, Lightstone-Bearer. And he has been a blessing to our Warrior-Children because of it.” “It was a joy to me, too.” Aiel told him. Mellin had also been exploring the Ket’s camp, with Marla at his side. As a Swordsman, he was particularly interested in the Westerners’ fine horses, and had been to look at and admire them. Marla too had been impressed by the grace and beauty of the animals. Now, as they too made their way back to the Ket’s pavilion, Mellin said, smiling at Marla, “It is pleasant here, but I shall be glad to be home. I so want to see that all is well with my mother, and to tell her of our betrothal.” Marla replied, thoughtfully, “I had no thought before, save of attaining Light. I did not stop to think where my home might be, after that. I never dreamed it might lie with you, though I loved you.” Mellin took her hand and said “Now,though, you know, my heart. Your place is with me, now and always.” Lin, too had been renewing old ties, talking over their Way with Ket-Kai, his Sword-Brother, who had left Zohra with the rest of her family and come to find him. The Westerner was still amazed at the discovery of Zohra’s unique Gifting, and Lin told him how she had sung with the Dancers on the Meeting Place, helping them turn Marla from Ma’al to Li’is. “Besides that” he told her father “she has been a blessing to us on the Way, with her music. She has played and sung for us in times of difficulty, and soothed and revived us with her melodies.” Ket-Kai said “I am glad of that, Sword-Brother. And I am glad that Zohra has found Light’s purpose for her Gifting of music, for at times, though she could not gainsay it, it has troubled her a little, since she was not sure of its meaning.”

Eventually they all made their way back to the Ket’s pavilion, and spent some time relaxing and telling of their meetings with old friends. Zohra, though, was still absent, and Aila sensed an undercurrent of concern from Arenel. No doubt, thought Aila, as part of the Ket’s family she was dong her part in preparing their welcome, and she flashed that reassuring thought to Arenel’s Perception, receiving a grateful smile in return. When Zohra finally rejoined them, telling them that yes, she had been helping with preparations for the welcoming meal , Arenel was relieved to see her. She asked Mellin, Marla and Aila, the only ones who had not visited the Plateau of the Westerners before, what they thought of her homeland, and seemed pleased with their comments. “When it grows dark” she told them “you must come outside and see our Western skies”, and Arenel, who had seen their glory, knew what she meant. The Ket’s pavilion, like the other larger tents, was divided into rooms by colourful woven hangings, and in the room beyond the one where they were, they could hear the preparations being made. Soon they began to smell savoury aromas, and Zohra disappeared again into the next room to help. It was not that long before she returned, telling them “All is ready now. Come and take your places.” They followed her through, and were welcomed again by the Ket. At his request, Aiel spoke the Meal-Blessing, then dishes were passed and the meal began. Arenel, unsure of the customs of the Westerners in such matters, had asked Zohra how he should speak to the Ket and her father. She had told him of the meal to welcome the guests, but said that he should not speak then. Afterwards, she and the women of the family would take the other girls to show them the guest tent allotted to them, and where to prepare for the night. “And then, when the menfolk are alone, you may speak” she told him, then, “Have no fear, my heart, they will not refuse you.”

Despite her reassurances, he felt nervous through the meal, and even while Zohra played and sang for them afterwards. When, as she had said, the women and the girls had left the Ket’s pavilion, and the men were left alone, Arenel knew his time to speak had come. He had confided in his father beforehand, and Aiel, sensing his son’s nervousness, sent a quick, encouraging thought to Arenel’s Perception. Thus supported, the young Priest took a deep breath, and said “Lord Ket, Ket-Kai, there is something I must say to you.” The Ket smiled , and said “Speak, then, Arenel. What is it?” “It is – Zohra and I, we are in love” Arenel said, taking courage, “and she has said that, if you both agree, she will be my Lady.” Receiving no immediate answer, he went on “I know I am neither Swordsman nor warrior, perhaps not what you wished for her, but I love her truly, and will always cherish her.” The Ket had leaned back in his carved chair and was looking thoughtful. He said “Arenel, indeed you are not a Swordsman or a warrior, but you are a Priest of Light. Each Child of Light fights for Light in their own way, and none can say they have no need of the other. Without the Priesthood, where would Li’is be?” He smiled then, and continued “We would not refuse you because you are not a warrior! Ket-Kai, what say you? She is your daughter.” Ket-Kai too smiled at Arenel, and said “If Zohra has your heart, and you hers, that is all I wish for her. If she is happy, so am I.” “The we agree” the Ket said. “You shall be betrothed.” Arenel gave a sigh of relief and thanked them. The Ket said “But you must stay with us for a while, Arenel, so that you may be betrothed in our fashion and learn our ways. I know you will take Zohra to the City, but it will be easier for her to leave us if you understand her people and their traditions,” Arenel nodded in agreement, and said “I asked Zohra if she was sure that she could bear to leave the West to come with me. She said that she would miss her place and her people, but not as much as she would miss me, if she stayed here and let me go away without her. So I will do anything you wish, Lord Ket, Ket-Kai, that you believe will make it easier for her.”

Both Zohra’s father and the Ket smiled in approval, and Aiel said “Then we must make arrangements, Arenel”, and turning to the Ket, he explained “Much has come of this Way, aside from Marla’s Changing and her attaining Light. She and Mellin are betrothed, and Janir and Aila also.” “And my Lady, Krystha, is bearing a child” Lin added “and her time of birthing will draw near once we return.” “Good news, indeed!” the Ket exclaimed ” But I see how there will be much to arrange. We will not delay the rest of your party long, Lightstone-Bearer, but you will be able to stay a day or two longer, so that we may prepare for the betrothal, and you will be there to take part in it?” “Of course!” Aiel answered. “Now Marla’s Way has succeeded, there is no urgency.” When the womenfolk returned to the Ket’s pavilion, he called Zohra forward to stand with Arenel, and said “Ket-Kai your father and I have agreed that you and Arenel may be betrothed, so you will need to prepare for the betrothal ceremony.” As Zohra cast a joyfully glowing look at Arenel, he continued “And Aiel and Arenel have also agreed that Arenel will stay with us awhile, to learn our ways.” Arenel noted that Zohra’s mother and aunt seemed unsurprised by this announcement, and knew that she must have told them earlier what to expect. However, they joined in the general congratulations in a way that showed their happiness for Zohra.

The next day, having said the Morning Prayers for the Ket’s camp. Aiel called Arenel and Aila to him. Concerned that Lin might begin to worry over Krystha, now that Marla’s needs were met, he had them help him make the Thought-without-Words to send a messsage through the Priesthood, starting with those at the Western Fortress, to the Priest of the Fortress, to enquire after Krystha. The message that came back was that Krystha was well and all was well, too, with her pregnancy. She sent her love to her husband, and bade him not to worry. Aiel sent no word, though, to either Fortress, of Janir and Aila’s or Mellin and Marla’s betrothals, nor Arenel’s, for that was theirs to tell. He passed on the news of Krystha to Lin, glad to set his friend’s mind at ease, and then all could enjoy preparing for Arenel and Zohra’s betrothal ceremony. Janir, asked by his friends if he had witnessed such a ceremony for Ket-Tal and Shala, said not, and Zohra explained, “Oh no, it is mainly for the maidens.” “Why so?” asked Aila. “It is because we are a wandering people” Zohra replied. “The betrothed might be apart for a long time, and it is a guarantee to the betrothed maiden that her beloved will be true to her. A Westerners’ betrothal is only one step below a marriage.” She warned them then, with a smile, ” The womenfolk will wail for me, but do not be concerned by that. It is not disapproval, it is only a tradition.” Only Arenel realised what she meant, as the others looked surprised. “As they wailed for the Warrior Children?” he asked. “You remembered that?” Zohra asked, looking pleased when he nodded. “Why?” asked Aila again. “They wail for the Warrior Children because they will be their children no more, but warriors in training. And they wail for the maidens who are betrothed, because they will leave their family and become wives and in time mothers to their own. But as I said, it is only a tradition. They are happy for us really.” “As we all are! Aila laughed. “It is a simple thing, the betrothal” Zohra went on “but important to us. To be handfasted by the Ket shows that we are truly devoted to each other.” Arenel said ” It will be good for us to keep the traditions of the West, Zohra. I am glad to be able to learn the ways of your people, so that we may carry some of the West with us, when I take you to the City” and Zohra gave him a loving look. “Why do you need to wait for the betrothal, though, Zohra?” Aila asked, still curious, and the Westerner smiled at her and said “There is some weaving to be done – you will see, Aila.”

The day came for the betrothal ceremony and, as for the Night of the Warrior Children, the Westerners gathered to witness it. The participants stood in their assigned places, with their families, to either side of the Ket, who stood outside his pavilion, a small table at his side on which was a little box. He called Arenel and Zohra forward to stand in front of him and announced to the onlookers “Zohra of the Ketai and Arenel of the Priesthood are here before you, to be betrothed in the manner of the Westerners.” Turning to the couple he asked “Do you promise before Light to be true to each other until you may wed, even if your ways be far apart?” They made their affirmations, Zohra having coached Arenel beforehand what to say, and the Ket said “Give me your hands.” Both of them extended their hands towards the Ket, and he turned and opened the little box, taking out a long strip of fabric, woven in the colours of the Westerners. Now Aila understood, for the Ket took the strip and wrapped it around Zohra’s and Arenel’s hands, binding them together. “Handfasting” Zohra had called it, and the Ket said the same. “Now you are handfasted and promised to each other” he proclaimed, and laid a hand on each of their heads in blessing. The men also called blessings, while the women, as Zohra had warned, wailed briefly, before joining in the blessings. It was, as she had told them, a simple ceremony, but they found it very moving, just the same. Aila had felt her brother’s happiness at this formal acknowledgement of his and Zohra’s betrothal, and knew that Aiel had too. Afterwards, in the Ket’s pavilion, trays of sweetmeats were passed round to signify the sweetness of the occasion, and they all commented on the betrothal ceremony.

Now that the ceremony was done, though, and despite the Ket’s generous hospitality, they were ready to be on their way homeward. So it was decided that they would leave the next morning. Aila was a little sad to leave Arenel, but, she thought, they both had new lives ahead of them, and she would no longer be always in reach of her brother’s Perception. So she did not feel the same kind of sadness she had when they had parted before, for he had Zohra, and she had Janir. Aiel too was prepared for these new beginnings, and respected his son’s wish to learn more of Zohra’s people and way of life to ease her move to the City when they married. So though there was some sadness at parting the next day, it was tempered with happiness for Arenel and Zohra. Arenel embraced his family . and they wished him and Zohra well, then mounted and, with many a backward glance and signal of farewell, set off on the track that would take them towards the Western Fortress. Aila thought of their perilous transit through the Westmost Narrows at the start of Marla’s Way, and was thankful that they need not pass that way again. The track led them down to the foothills, and on to the Western farmlands, where again they crossed the Snake River and rode on towards the towns below the Western Fortress. It was good to be riding without the urgent need of Marla’s Way, with their families and loved ones, in these gentle lands. The sun was warm and the sky was clear, and the farmlands were showing promise of good crops to come. They chatted as they rode, discussing future plans. Marla said, suddenly, “I remember when we set out from the Western Fortress – I was so torn between hope and fear, and still did not know if I would attain Light. Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, you achieved that for me. But all of you have been my strength too, and I love you for it.” They were touched by her words and Aila answered her friend “Marla, we were glad to help you, and we too did it out of love for you.” And Mellin, riding by her side, turned towards his betrothed and said “Marla, my heart, we are all more glad than you can know, that we were able to help you in your time of need, and to attain Light.”

They passed through the farmlands and approached the towns, passing through one of them as they had before. After that they were glad to see The Western Fortress come into view, and it was not so long before they reached it. Janir called out to the Watchwards at the gates, and they were opened to let the riders through. Janir turned in the saddle and said, with a broad smile, “We are home!” And though it was his home, not theirs, they did all feel a sense of homecoming, after their travels. Barengian and Mira came to meet them as they entered the Great Hall and, after greeting them all and embracing Janir, were anxious to know if Marla’s Way had succeeded. They were quickly reassured, and exclaimed at the physical change in Marla that the Dancers had wrought. Barengian asked “But where is Arenel? I hope no misadventure has befallen him?” “No, indeed!” Aiel replied, smiling. “But we have left him in the Ket’s camp. He and Zohra are betrothed, and he is staying with the Ket for a while, to learn the ways of the Westerners.” “A Priest and a Westerner? Now that will be a wedding to see!” commented Barengian. Janir stepped forward. “Mother, Father…” he signalled to Aila to come to his side, and taking her hand, he said “I have asked Aila to be my Lady, and she has agreed. We have Aiel’s blessing, and we are also betrothed.” Mira cried “Janir…Aila..oh, I am so happy!” Barengian smiled broadly and said, “So-we must prepare the Western Fortress for another wedding! Two weddings coming so closely together will mean much to arrange.” Now Mellin laughed, and said “Barengian, Aunt Mira, there will be three weddings-” he paused, and Mira asked excitedly “Oh – do you mean that you and Marla…?” “Yes, Aunt Mira, we too are betrothed.” “Now I do not know what to say!” Barengian exclaimed, laughing again. “Light is love, and brings love out of Darkness” Aiel said. He had been thinking again about the Secret Word, and recalled the part that said “hate shall be turned to love, and pain to joy”. That had certainly been true of Mellin and Marla. Lin added “It was on the Lightstone Way that Aiel and I fell in love with our Ladies, and now on Marla’s Way Light has brought love out of Darkness again, as Aiel said.” “Well, you must come and rest and eat now” Mira ordered. “And you can tell us all about it, and all your adventures!”


Chapter 11

When the kindly Healer had led Marla away, Mellin turned to Aiel in anxious enquiry. “Aiel – is Marla truly free? There is no danger to her from Si-Mara still?” Aiel smiled. “You saw for yourself, Mellin. She has attained Light, she is Changed. She is a Child of Light and of Li’is now, and the Darkness and Ma’al have no claim on her. Oh, there may be some danger yet, if Si-Mara should seek revenge on her – but not the thing she feared. As far as it concerns Si-Mara’s foul ‘ceremonies’ and their forcing Marla to become the Bloodstone-wielder, she is completely free and safe. All her Dark powers have gone, and she is useless to the Dark Ones without them.” The tension in Mellin’s body relaxed visibly as the Lightstone-Bearer told him this, and when Aiel stopped speaking, the young Swordsman gave a strange, deep sigh that was almost a moan. Aiel, startled, looked across at his suddenly pale-faced nephew. Aila, who alone of them all knew of Mellin’s love for Marla and the dreadful stress her cousin had been under, realised what was going to happen and said urgently to Janir, who was nearest, “Janir, catch him!” Even so, Janir was only just in time to prevent Mellin from crashing to the floor as he collapsed with sheer relief. Lin cried “Mellin!”, bending in alarm over his fainting son as he helped Janir lift him on to one of the alcove seats. Arenel said, almost accusingly, to his sister “You expected this?” “I expected – something.” Aila answered briefly, as she deftly examined Mellin. Lin hovered nearby , his distressed face showing his deep, though rarely openly expressed, love for his son. “Lin” Aila said, wanting to reassure him, “have no fear for Mellin. He has carried a great burden on this Way, and this is release.” “But why?” Lin asked.

Aila knew that she could not tell her uncle of Mellin’s deep love for Marla, for that was not hers to tell. Of his pledge to the girl, though, she could tell, and it would be enough. Lin would understand and respect that. “Mellin told me” she began “that when he first realised Marla’s search for Light was genuine, he was ashamed of how he had treated her. He told her he was sorry to have doubted her, and to make amends, he told her he would pledge his sword and his service to help her.” She glanced at Lin, and he nodded, to show he understood. Aila continued “Marla accepted that pledge, but asked him for another too. And what she asked was that if she failed to attain Light and there was risk of Si-Mara capturing her – as she would not then wish to live, but might lack the power to die – that Mellin would – would slay her with his sword. Oh, he would not promise at first, he said, but then Marla told him what would be done to her if ever the ‘ceremonies’ came to be carried out – things he said he could not tell me, for they were too dreadful for me to hear! And Marla begged him, not only for her sake, but because of what Li’is would suffer if she were forced to wield the Bloodstone. She told Mellin that there were worse things than to die quickly and cleanly, at the hands of a merciful friend. So Mellin made her the pledge, Lin, knowing that if ever the time came to carry it out, he would be sending her into Darkness forever, because it would mean that all hope of her attaining Light was lost. And that is the burden he has carried all this time.” Arenel nodded agreement, and said “That is true, Lin. He told me about it in the Prayer Room of the Western Fortress before we set out. He asked me to tell no one else, and we carried it to Light together. But he was still sad about it.” Lin reached out to stroke his son’s tousled red-gold hair, so like Krystha’s, and Aiel thought he glimpsed tears in his old friend’s eyes. “Then I am very proud of him.” Lin said. “He is a Swordsman.” “He is his father’s son” Janir said quietly, smiling at his uncle.

Tor-Harat would have arranged for his stewards to carry Mellin to his chamber, but his father and cousin would have none of it , and carried him there themselves, with Aila to make sure all was well with him. Once that was settled, they returned to the Hall. All of them were feeling strange. They had lost a night’s sleep, but events had been so moving and exciting, and it was so early in the day, that to go and rest did not seem possible. They all thought it fitting to go to the Prayer Room, which had been restored to normality in their absence, and pray, and praise Light for Marla’s deliverance. They spent some time there in in joyful contemplation and praise of the love and mercy of Light. Afterwards, Arenel asked Zohra, somewhat diffidently, “Zohra – is it possible that you could sing us the Dancers’ Song?” “No” she said, but regretfully. “I think that would not be right, Arenel. It belongs to them alone. I was only allowed to sing with them because it was needful for Marla’s Changing. But I hope one day before we leave I may go and listen to them again.” Aiel said “Zohra, I am not sure that would be wise. If men were meant to hear the Dancers’ Song, all men would have the gift. This was a special blessing.” “But I do have the gift” she said, politely but firmly, “so it must be right for me to hear the Song, Aiel.” It seemed that on this point the Westerner was not to be moved. Aiel said only “Then you must seek the Will of Light in this, Zohra.” and had to be content with her promise to do that.

Aila was beginning to find the Prayer Room stuffy. Her temples were pulsing with the beginnings of a headache, and she said “I think I must go to the Gardens for some air, Father. My head throbs!” “Not alone, Aila” Aiel warned her. “The Children of Night are cunning – I remember Soom!” He glanced round at the others, then said “Janir – will you go with Aila, to guard her?” “Yes, Aiel” Janir answered obediently, but with a little sideways glance at Aila. Out in the Gardens, away from the Gatehouse, he took her hands in his, and asked with concern “Is it well with you, Aila? You do look pale.” “It has been a long night and morning” she said “so much happening, so much to feel…” She stopped, feeling it all welling up in her, and turned towards him, “Oh, Janir…” His arms folded her as her tears began – no sorrow in them, but relief, and joy, and weariness, and the overwhelming wonder of what had been done for Marla. Janir stroked her hair, gentling her like a child.”Hush, hush, Aila my heart! It is over now, all done – Marla is safe. All is well, my love.” When she stopped weeping, he cupped her face in his hands and brushed away the wet from her cheeks, awkwardly, with his thumbs, and kissed her. Returning to the Gatehouse, they found breakfast prepared and the others at the table. When they had eaten, Lady Benika insisted that they should all at least lie down and rest, even if they could not sleep, but Aila did drift off to sleep after all.

When she woke ,Aila guessed it to be afternoon. She felt refreshed by her rest, and now fully able to feel the joy and wonder of Marla’s Changing. She stretched, yawned, and swung her feet to the floor. Having smoothed her rumpled hair and gown, she went to the window and looked out at the serene and beautiful Gardens , then up at the Meeting Place. She wondered if any of the others were about, wanting, now she was rested, to talk about the wonders they had witnessed. Aila decided to go down to the Hall. She might find some of the others there, and in any case she felt a little thirsty after her sleep, and knew she would find something to drink there. As she left her chamber, though, she was glad to meet Mellin in the corridor. He too had been walking towards the stairway, but had paused to look wistfully at the closed door of Marla’s room. Aila smiled at her cousin and asked with sympathetic concern “How is it with you now, Mellin? Are you feeling better?” Mellin flushed “I am ashamed! I, a Swordsman, to faint so…” Aila cut him off, but gently “Mellin, it was your body’s response to the lifting of the stress and anguish you had been under. There was nothing unmanly in that.” The Swordsman looked into the face of his understanding cousin “Oh, Aila!” he exclaimed “It is true, really true! Marla is safe and free, and a Child of Light!” She was about to reply when they were both startled by a terrified scream that ripped through the air and was instantly repeated. The cousins stared at each other in horror, realising the sound came from Marla’s chamber, and rushed to her door. Mellin was ready to burst it down, but they found that it was unlocked. Mellin, drawing his sword in the same movement, flung it open and ran in, with Aila following. Marla was sitting bolt upright in her bed, her hands to her face, screaming as if she would never stop, but there was no enemy in the room, nothing in the direction in which she was staring with fixed, frightened eyes.

Mellin,assuming control, said, “Aila, try to calm Marla, while I search.” Aila went to Marla and seated herself beside the girl, embracing her, talking to her calmingly, but Marla seemed both hypnotised and terrified. Mellin made a thorough search, but there was no hidden enemy. Marla’s screams had faded to a frightened whimpering and above the sound the Swordsman said, angrily, “Sweet Light, is her torture not over yet? What Darkness could reach her after what has been done for her? Or is it a reaction to the Changing, Aila, that ails her?” “No, the Dancers said it would not harm her. And my father said she would be safe from Si-Mara and the Dark Ones, unless it were a physical threat to her.” “So it is not an enchantment? Aila, can you not call Aiel?” “Wait” she told him, and tried to follow Marla’s distressed gaze to find the source of her fear. All she saw, though, were the usual furnishings of a bedchamber; a woven rug on the floor, a clothes-chest, a chair, a wall-hanging, a round mirror of bright, polished metal… “The mirror!” she exclaimed “Mellin…” But Mellin anticipated her; picking up a cloak that lay on the chest, he covered the shining surface. Marla’s fixed gaze broke; she turned dazed eyes on Aila and began to weep, holding tightly to her friend. “She must have woken, confused by the Changing, as the Dancers said she might be…” Aila began, and Mellin broke in “And looked in the mirror, and seen a different face. And she was frightened, forgetting what had happened.” “Not even forgetting!” Aila said. “Mellin, Marla has not seen herself in a mirror since the Changing. We did not think of that. She did not know.” She lifted Marla’s bowed head and said, with quiet firmness, “Marla dear, hear me. It is all part of the Changing.” But Marla was looking, not at Aila, but up at Mellin, pleadingly. Her eyes went to his sword and, divining her thought, he blanched, and quickly sheathed it. Marla gave a little half-sob. “The Darkness!” she moaned. “I am not myself – have they made me a Shape-Changer? That was one of the powers they said I would have! Mellin, Mellin, tell me the truth – you must keep the pledge you gave me!” “Marla, no!” he cried. “it is not the Darkness, but the Dancers who have Changed you, through the mercy of Light. It is over, all over, and you are free-you have attained Light! Do you not remember? Can you not feel it in you? Search your spirit, Marla. The Darkness is gone from you.”

“Mellin” Aila said “take care of Marla for a moment.” She released Marla and rose, and Mellin took her place, holding Marla’s hands in his and continuing his words of comfort. Aila crossed the room and lifted the mirror from the wall. Turning, she looked at Mellin and Marla. Her cousin was totally absorbed in comforting Marla, and Marla was looking up at him trustingly. Aila was touched. If only Marla could learn to love Mellin as he loved her! She carried the mirror back to them. “Marla, look now, and do not be afraid” she told her friend. “This is your true self, as Light always saw you.” Marla still clung to Mellin’s hands as she peeped hesitantly at the polished surface, gasped, looked away – then resolutely turned her eyes back and looked long and hard at her reflection. At last she spoke. “Is it really me?” They assured her of it, and she said bemusedly “It is my face, and not my face.” “It is the face of Marla of Li’is, Child of Light” Mellin told her. “This is how Light meant you to be.” “Am I – am I beautiful?” Marla asked, hesitantly. “Yes!” Mellin said, fervently, and Aila added “Marla, yes, you are beautiful, but more importantly you are beautiful inside too, in your soul and spirit, because all the Darkness is gone from you and Light reigns there now.” “I did not wish to be beautiful” the other girl said. “Si-Mara is beautiful, but her beauty is a deadly thing, like snow on the mountains, lovely to see, but chilling to the death. And when she said I was beautiful, and was pleased by it, she meant only that I looked like her.” “But now you do not” Aila answered. “It is no cold and deadly beauty, Marla. You look like no one but your own true self, and there is no Darkness in you.” Mellin said again “Marla, you are free! You walk in Light!” Marla smiled at them both, her fears at last stilled. “I know” she said. There was a brief silence, as though she searched inside herself, then she burst out “Oh Aila, Mellin, I have attained Light!” and was weeping again, but now with joy, smiling through her tears. Mellin hugged her, saying nothing, but looking up at Aila with shining eyes, as if he had to share his love and joy for Marla with someone.

There was a tap at the door and Lady Benika came in, looking concerned. “Oh Aila, is it well with Marla? My steward thought he heard her cry out.” “She did” Aila answered, and explained about the mirror and Marla’s fears, and that they were now allayed. “Good.” the other Healer said, and Marla asked “When may I go to the Prayer Room? I must give my thanks to Light!” “Whenever you feel strong enough” Lady Benika told her. “The Dancers said you would be tired, but not harmed, by the Changing. And Mellin” she continued “is it well with you now?” Mellin flushed darkly and muttered something, and Marla exclaimed “Oh, have you been unwell, Mellin?” Aila explained gently “Not unwell, Marla. He was just very glad that you had attained Light and that he would not have to carry out his pledge to you, and the relief of it overcame him for a while, that is all.” “Mellin, I am sorry!” Marla said, contritely. “Have I been selfish? Perhaps I should never have asked such a thing of you. But I was so desperate not to be a tool of Darkness and bring harm to the people of this world. I knew you were a man of honour and an enemy of Darkness and would do what you must to defeat it. That is why I asked you. But if I have hurt you by it, I am truly sorry.” “Oh, Marla!” Mellin said, then, “Yes, it was a hard thing to ask of me, but the right thing, and I honoured you for it. And it would have hurt me to have done it, but if necessary I would have – for it would not have been to you that I did it then. And yes, I am so very glad that it never will be necessary, now.” “Thank you” she said simply “and Light bless you, Mellin.” Aila said “If you do feel well enough, Marla, I will come with you to the Bathing Place, if you wish, and after that we can go to the Prayer Room.” Marla happily agreed that yes, she did indeed feel well enough, and Lady Benika said she would have some fresh gowns provided for them. Mellin smiled at the girls, glad to find Marla in such good spirits now, and said he would find his father and Janir, in case they were concerned for him still.

When he had gone, Aila took Marla to the Bathing Place, where a servant girl brought them the promised gowns. After they had bathed and dressed, Aila took Marla, as she had said, to the Prayer Room. She wondered, momentarily, whether Marla would feel uneasy, considering their experiences in the Prayer Room during her Changing, but Marla seemed unconcerned, only longing to be able to enter the Prayer Room as a Child of Light, to give thanks to Light. As she pushed open the doors, Aila saw that her father and brother and Lin were in the Prayer Room, and was glad. Aiel turned to see who had entered, and greeted them with a broad smile. “Marla” he asked “is it well with you? How do you feel?” She smiled back. “A little tired still, Aiel, but well, and so thankful to Light! I had to come and offer praise for what has been done for me!” “Come, then” he said, indicating the Crucible. There was none of the hesitancy she had shown before her Changing as she now approached the Crucible. Lifting her arms towards the flame, Marla began to express her love and joy to Light, sometimes stumbling over her words, but with such sincerity and devotion that all of them were deeply moved. When she had finished her prayers, there were tears of joy in her eyes as she turned towards the others. “I belong here now!” she told them, simply, and Aiel spoke for them all when he said “And that is our joy, Marla.” “Aye” Lin added “You are a Child of Light now, Marla, and we are glad for you.” She smiled round at them, but Aila thought she looked a little weary and said “Marla, it is a great blessing, but you still need to gain strength. Come and eat now.” “Aila is right” Aiel told her.”The Changing has taken much of your strength, and you need sustaining. So Marla agreed, and went with Aila, while Arenel too excused himself to attend to matters of his own. The Swordsman saw a thoughtful look on his friend’s face and asked “What are you thinking, Aiel?” “We had not thought beyond the end of Marla’s Way” Aiel said. “Her need to attain Light drove out all other considerations. But what for her now, Lin? She is Changed, and a Child of Light. But she has no family, no home or means to live.” Lin said, surprised, “Why, I had not thought of that either. But we can help her, Aiel. Would she wish to live in the City – would she even be safe there? We would welcome her at the Fortress, there is room enough, and maybe Krystha could train her to be a Healer.” “The City – I am not sure” Aiel answered “she is Changed, yes, but Si-Mara might still recognise her by her dark powers. Though Marla is useless to her now for her dark purposes, she might seek revenge on her. As to the Fortress, that might be safer for her, and it is a kind offer, Lin. But we must leave it to Marla to decide what she wants, though we will not leave her desolate.” He looked at his friend then, and added “But we will not mention this yet. She is still so happy as things are now, and none of the young ones have thought of this. When Marla begins to think of her future, then we will help her to decide.”

Meanwhile Aila and Marla had gone to the Hall, where they found Zohra, who welcomed them both and asked after Marla. She answered that yes, all was well with her and she was very happy, but when she sat down at the table and her friends tried to encourage her to eat, she managed very little, and Aila asked “Marla, are you sure it is well with you?” Marla hesitated, then admitted “Aila, my head aches.” Aila nodded and reached into her Healer’s sack for a little bag of powdered herbs. Mixing some into a cup of water, she passed the draught to Marla. who drank it down obediently. “So much has happened to you, Marla dear” the Healer said “and though it has ended happily for you, it is no wonder you should still feel the effects of it.” Marla said “I truly am very happy, Aila, and I know”, smiling at Aila and Zohra, “that you are my good friends. But forgive me, I feel I must be alone for a little, just to let myself take in all that has happened. I will walk in the Gardens for a while, I think.” Aila agreed, saying “The fresh air will help your headache too” but adding in warning “but do not go too far, Marla, and take care.” “I will, Aila.” the other girl promised, and left the room. Zohra commented “She is right, Aila. She has had barely a moment to herself since we arrived here and she does need time to think about it all.” “So much has changed for her” Aila concurred ” and though it is what she wished, still it must come strange to her. She has been under such a burden for so long, and suddenly it is gone, and she is free. She might even feel lost, in some strange way, now that all is accomplished.” Before Zohra could answer, Arenel came into the Hall. He greeted the girls and joined them at the table to make his own meal. While he ate, he told them that Aiel and Lin had stayed in the Prayer Room, while the younger Swordsman were busy with other matters. Then he asked after Marla, and Aila explained. Arenel agreed with his sister that it was little wonder that Marla should need time and quiet to understand all that had happened to her. “None of us could possibly comprehend what she has gone through” he said. “We saw what happened in the Prayer Room, Aila, what Marla experienced to attain Light, the Darkness that she had to overcome – she must be overwhelmed, though joyful, that all that is over.” Aila was about to answer her brother when she paused, turning her head towards the door. The others did not ask why, for they too had heard the sound of some commotion outside.

Janir entered the room with Mellin, both of them with such grave expressions that Aila cried “Oh, what is wrong?” “Where is Aiel?” Janir asked. “There is danger – one of the Gatehouse Gatewards has been found slain by the side-gate to the Gardens.” “The Children of Night must be inside – nobody is to go out there” Mellin warned. “Oh, Mellin – Marla!” Zohra exclaimed, horrified.”She had a headache, and went to walk in the Gardens…” Before she finished, Mellin had gone, and Janir commanded “Arenel, guard the maidens and call Aiel!” and quickly followed his cousin. Mellin, in terror for Marla, had drawn his sword and rushed headlong out into the Gardens. Once outside, though, his Swordsman’s training reasserted itself and he checked his reckless dash and took firm control of his feelings. He would not help Marla by rushing into peril himself. Instead he moved quietly, carefully through the Gardens, guessing where Marla might have gone, a walk she had enjoyed, flower-strewn and shaded by tress. Mellin had been right. Marla was there, and so was another figure, tall and black-robed, confronting her. Tamat! The Child of Night was holding out one hand, something bright shining on the palm, speaking in a soft, hypnotically enticing voice. “The Bloodstone, Lady! Power lies in this and it is yours by right, by birth. Come, take the stone, and your rightful place of power!” Marla’s voice, when she answered him, was clear and firm, without a tremor of fear. “No, I will not take the loathsome thing. And if I did, I would be useless to you, for I am Changed. I have achieved Light. I am no Child of Darkness now. In the Name of Light, go, and leave me in peace.” Tamat snarled as she spoke the Name, and threatened “Then it will be the peace of death!” Still she stood firm, telling him “Aye, even if you kill me, I shall have peace, Tamat, for I shall touch Light. Do you not understand that I belong to Light now ?” As Tamat glared threateningly at the girl, Mellin stepped suddenly from hiding, drawn sword in hand, placing himself between Marla and her enemy. “Go, Tamat, or it will be your death, if you face my sword again!” Tamat snarled “Fool! This stone will smite you into oblivion, without the Lightstone to aid you!” With a quick movement he slipped the ring on his finger and extended it towards Mellin. Mellin raised his sword, staring in horror at the evil glow of the Bloodstone, his only thought to stop it from harming Marla.

As the stone flashed, Mellin heard Marla cry “No!” and felt himself thrust aside. He felt another impact, seeming to come through his sword, and the right side of his body went completely numb. At the same time he heard a deep and terrible wail, but it was a man’s voice, not Marla’s. With all feeling gone from one side of his body, he dropped helplessly to the ground. He managed, with great difficulty, to turn his head a little, and saw Marla sprawled on her back, as if pushed aside by some giant hand. He tried to call her name, but not even his voice would respond. Certain she was dead, his eyes filled with tears of overwhelming loss, he lay still, utterly vulnerable and sure that at any moment his despair would be ended by the slash of Tamat’s sword. The expected blow did not come, though. Instead, after a few moments he heard Janir’s voice exclaim “Mellin – Marla – Sweet Light, are they dead, Aiel?”, and Aila, who had ignored his instructions to stay behind and run to help with the others, cried, “Oh, no-Father…” Aiel said “They live, Janir. But the Child of Night is dead. Aila, Janir, tend to them. This is strange…” A moment more and Mellin found himself gently lifted and supported on his cousin’s arm. “Mellin!” came Janir’s worried voice. “Cousin, Sword-Brother, can you hear me?” Mellin tried to speak, but could not. Panic-stricken, he looked up into Janir’s face and moaned softly. Janir tried to speak comfort to him, lifting Mellin so that he was leaning against him. But Janir’s look was anxious as he watched the way Mellin’s right arm and leg hung limp and heavy, and the right side of his face drooped. Janir looked across to where Aila was kneeling beside Marla. Though Marla was conscious, Aila’s look too was anxious, for Marla was staring up into her face without any sign of seeing her friend. Aila passed her hand before the green eyes with no response, and knew Marla had been blinded. “Aila” Janir called softly “Mellin cannot move!” And Marla cannot see!” Aila replied. “What evil thing has happened to them?”

Hearing Aila’s voice, Marla clung to her. “Aila – did I save Mellin? Oh, say he is not dead – he is my very heart!” Her voice rose to a pitiful cry, and Mellin could not help but hear. He tried desperately to call her name, but could not, and Janir, seeing his cousin’s need, lifted Mellin nearer to Marla, so that his good left hand could at least hold hers. Mellin’s hand clasped Marla’s and Aila, very moved, said “Marla, Mellin is not dead. He is here – feel his hand. But he cannot move one side of his body, and you are blind. Oh my dear, what has happened to you both?” Relieved tears poured down Marla’s cheeks. “It does not matter!” she gasped “As long as he is alive – the Lightstone will heal us, for it was the Bloodstone that did this.” At that moment Aiel came back from examining Tamat’s body, looking as though he felt rather sick. “Marla, child, what has happened to Tamat?” he asked gently. Though she could not see his expression, Marla knew what he meant. “Tamat tried to use the Bloodstone. I knew about the Bloodstone, Aiel, for they expected me to wield it. I knew if I could split its power, it would fail. It was new-forged and – had not yet been fed.” “But Tamat’s body is like that of a man long dead, not newly slain.” Aiel said. Marla answered “As evil as he was, he was not evil enough for the Bloodstone. He tried to power it with the Darkness within himself, and it was not enough. It has sucked the life and soul and spirit from him.” She sighed, as though she were very weary. “That is what they would have had me wield, that evil, evil…” and she broke off, with a sob. “But you are blind!” Aila exclaimed again.” And Mellin is paralysed!” “Aiel, the Lightstone will heal us” Marla told the Lightstone-Bearer. “But Mellin first – please!” Aiel said “As you wish, Marla.” He knelt and laid the Lightstone to Mellin’s brow. The light flowed out over him, and they heard him gasp. As soon as the light withdrew they could see that the paralysis had left him. He waited quietly, holding Marla’s hand tightly, while Aiel laid the Lightstone to her brow in turn. Its healing light swept over her too, and withdrew, leaving her green eyes clear and bright once more, and she blushed as she met Mellin’s ardent gaze.

Before Mellin could speak, though, Lin burst onto the scene, his face taut with concern, saying “Arenel Perceived that Mellin and Marla were hurt.” He went to his knees beside Mellin, who was still supported by Janir, exclaiming “Mellin, my son!” “It is well with me now, Father” Mellin reassured him. “But you owe my life to Marla.” Lin reached out and laid one gentle hand on Marla’s head. “Light bless you, Marla!” he said, in a voice choked with emotion. Janir, moving a little to one side to make room for his uncle, had encountered something hard in the grass, and now held it up with an exclamation of surprise. It was – or had been – Mellin’s sword. Now it was fused and melted to the point where the weapon it had been was barely recognisable. “What has happened to Mellin’s sword?” Janir asked in amazement. “I tried to direct the Bloodstone’s force into the metal, away from Mellin.” Marla explained. Mellin released her hand, rose to his feet, a little unsteadily still, with the help of his cousin and father, and knelt beside Aila, smiling at her briefly, but now nothing mattered to him but Marla. He reached out for her and Aila gladly gave the girl into her cousin’s outstretched arms and hear him whisper “Marla, my heart – I love you.” Aila rose to her feet, reaching automatically for Janir’s hand in the emotion of the moment. Mellin gathered Marla to him, burying his face in her hair, and her arms came up and round him, holding him tightly.

Aila glanced at her uncle, watching for his reaction as Mellin tilted Marla’s face up to his and kissed her tenderly. She did not really believe that Lin would have any objection to Mellin’s love for Marla, but there was a faint, lingering doubt in her mind. Lin, though, was watching the young couple with a gentle smile, and Aiel, who had also looked across at his old friend, guessed that Lin was thinking of their own Way, and his love for Krystha, a love which had also found recognition only in the face of danger and the threat of death. Marla, however, it seemed, still had doubts. Even as she lovingly caressed Mellin’s cheek, she exclaimed “Oh Mellin, my heart, it is impossible! You are a Lord of Li’is and Heir to the Fortress, and I am nothing, nobody! I have no family, no name, no home, no – no belonging-place.””This is your ‘belonging-place’ ” Mellin told her, holding her tight. “In my arms and my heart. And the rest I will provide for you.” “But what will Lin say – and your mother?” Marla asked, forgetting Lin’s presence. Mellin looked up at his father as if asking for aid, and the older Swordsman knelt too and took Marla’s hand, smiling at her. “Marla, my dear, do you really think that Krystha or I would have any objection to Mellin’s feelings for you? Dear child, “Marla of Li’is” is the most honourable name I know. We were born to Li’is and to Light, but you have fought your way out of Darkness to attain them, besides refusing to be the means of letting the Bloodstone loose on our world. If Mellin’s heart is set to have you for his Lady, and you agree, we shall be proud of such a daughter!” “Oh, Lin!” Marla smiled, but her eyes had misted with tears. Mellin said softly “You see? Marla, will you be my Lady?” “Oh Mellin, yes!” she answered joyfully.

Aila, ready to weep too with joy and relief, turned to Janir. “Oh, I am so glad!” she said “Mellin has loved her so long!” “And that was the secret you kept for my Sword-Brother? But he has not loved Marla as long as I have loved you!” For a moment, Aila almost thought Janir’s remark was an accusation, but then, as he slipped his arm around her and pulled her close, she realised his meaning. No reason now for their love to remain a secret, and Janir was prepared to wait no longer. Politely but firmly he said, “Aiel, I have something to ask you.” As her father turned towards them, she saw a broad smile on his face. “Yes, Janir, I will be happy for Aila to be your Lady.” “But- how did you know?” the young Swordsman asked, surprised. “Oh, my children!” Aiel laughed. “You could not hide your love from me, though it was your determination not to let it interfere with Marla’s Way that showed it was mature as well as strong and true.” He put a hand on Janir’s shoulder. “You are too honest and transparent, Janir, and I know my daughter too well, for me to be deceived.” They laughed too, and Marla said, smiling at them, “Then you two also…” “Yes” Janir smiled back. “We also, Marla!” Mellin grinned hugely and called to Janir “Ho! Is it well with you, Sword-Brother?”, and Janir, holding Aila close, grinned back and answered “It is very well with us. Is it well with you, Sword-Brother?” “Well, and very well.” Mellin replied, contentedly, and after the fear and danger, it was good to be joyful. Arenel and Zohra too, now the danger was over, had hurried out to see for themselves that their friends were unharmed by the encounter with Tamat, and joined in the happiness and congratulations.

But then, in the midst of their rejoicing, Aial, Arenel and Aila all flung up their heads, blue eyes blazing with the stirring of their Perceptions. “Father!” Aila exclaimed, and Aiel responded “Yes, child, I feel it too. There is Darkness near!” Marla said then, with such certainty that they did not think to doubt her, “Aiel – it is the Bloodstone! It strives to renew itself – oh, quickly, we must destroy it before it can live again!” She broke free of Mellin’s embrace and scrambled to her feet, crying “Aiel, come, bring the Lightstone.” They followed her to where Tamat’s body lay, and those who had not seen the corpse gasped in horror at the sight. Shrivelled, dried, teeth bared by the withered facial flesh, it looked like a mummified, centuries-old thing. On the outflung left hand was the Bloodstone ring, the stone now dull and dark against the glittering gold, almost black. But as they watched, the faintest spark of red appeared for a fraction of a second, then faded again. “You see?” Marla whispered. “It fights to live. Aiel, touch me with the Lightstone.” The girl seemed to know exactly what she was doing, so Aiel did as she asked. As he touched the stone to her brow, a glowing Light-Shield formed around Marla, and stayed with her as she knelt and lifted the dead man’s hand. She tried to ease the ring from his finger, but though the finger was shrunken almost to the bone, and the ring should have slipped off easily, it clung tenaciously to Tamat’s hand. “Mellin” Marla said, at last. He came to her, and she said “You must take a sword and cut off the finger. It is the only way. But do not strike the stone.” Janir proffered his sword, and Mellin took it and carefully did as she asked. There was no blood, for as Marla had said, the Bloodstone had sucked every life-giving thing from Tamat. Marla picked up the severed finger. The ring, which had clung so tightly before, now loosened and would have slipped off the finger and out of her grasp, but she held it firmly, and looked around her. Nearby was a part of the Gardens where ferns and other ornamental plants grew among a tumble of rocks. Most of the rocks were too big and heavy to move, but there were some smaller ones at the edges. “Now, can you Swordsmen lift one of those rocks over here?” Marla asked. It took an effort, but with Arenel helping too, they managed to do it. Marla instructed. “When I lay down the ring, drop the rock on it. But quickly, before it can roll away.” Marla had spoken, all the time, as though the ring were alive, and they had only half-understood. They expected the ring to be crushed, nothing more. What happened next amazed and scared them.

First there was a dreadful crashing, splintering sound, as though the rock had fallen not on a ring, but a mountain of crystal. The sound of shattering persisted for a while. Then the rock – the rock which it had taken the combined strength of the three Swordsmen and Arenel to lift – was tossed aside by a powerful blast, from which the Light-Shield, which had now extended to cover the whole group, protected them. Lastly, most dreadful of all, a Darkness rose from the spot where the ring had lain, where now a deep hole gaped. Like a thick smoke, it towered above them, menacing but powerless to harm them because of the Light-Shield. It rose like a parody of a Dancer, tall, flame-shaped, but sooty black, shot with red sparks. And Aiel, who had fought against such a thing before, knew what it was. “It is a Night Lord!” he exclaimed. “A corrupted Dancer of Ma’al!” As he spoke, the air shimmered and a group of Dancers appeared. They surrounded the Night Lord, closing in on it, and the Dark thing suddenly shot upwards, disappearing out into the emptiness beyond the skies of Li’is. The Dancers ‘spoke’. “The Dark One has returned to its own place. The Bloodstone is destroyed and the danger to Li’is is over.” Having given this reassurance, they shimmered out of sight again, and the Light-Shield withdrew into the Lightstone, leaving them all a little dazed at what had happened. Marla rose to her feet and turned towards Mellin, almost falling into his outstretched arms. Aila hurried to her friend, concerned that Marla might faint. She did not, but both she and Mellin seemed stunned and confused – no wonder, thought Aila, in view of all they had endured, the turmoil of different emotions they had experienced, in such a brief space of time. “Mellin, Marla, come to the Healing Place” she ordered, and led them away towards the Gatehouse. The others followed her, finding Tor-Harat the Gatekeeper waiting anxiously. Rather than explain all that had happened, Aiel linked Perceptions with him , and when he had been apprised of all that had happened, they made arrangements to deal with Tamat’s body.

While the others went inside the Great Hall to recover, Aila took Mellin and Marla to the Healing Place. As much as the reviving draught she intended to give them, she felt that they needed time to be alone together. So much had happened to them so quickly – the fear, the injuries caused them by the Bloodstone and reversed by the healing touch of the Lightstone, the discovery of their love, the renewal of danger and the relief of overcoming it. All this in the space of such a little time, and no chance to take in what had happened or be quiet together. Even their first declarations of love, their first kiss, had been before others. So the Healer led her cousin and his love into the Healing Place and turned to smile at them encouragingly. They stood hand in hand, still quiet and seemingly dazed by it all. “Now” Aila said briskly. She went to the Healer’s bench and mixed two draughts of blackbark. She did not often like to use this strong stimulant, but this time she felt it necessary. She gave one bowl of the rich purple liquid to each of them and ordered “Drink this.” The draught was quick-acting and soon Mellin and Marla revived and began to be able to think and talk about what had happened. After a while, Aila told them “My dears, you do not need me now. But you do need to be alone together for a little while. You have so much to say to each other, and have had so little chance to say it. I will come back for you in a while.” When the door of the Healing Place closed behind his thoughtful cousin, Mellin turned to Marla, who said “How kind Aila is.” “And she is right” Mellin said. “We do need time together…” his voice softened as he drew Marla to him. “Oh, my love!” he said, and kissed her. When he let her go, he saw that she was weeping, and asked anxiously “Marla, my heart, what is it?” “Maybe I am foolish” she exclaimed “but oh, Mellin, I loved you so, and I thought you would never, never…” “Love you?” he finished for her, and when she nodded, said “But I did – I do. Only you had such a burden to bear and you had been so hurt – I did not know how to tell you. Especially” he added sadly, “when I had been so cruel and hurtful to you in the beginning. I do not know how you could have loved me after that.”

What she said then astonished him. “But I loved you even then” she said quietly. “I loved you almost from the first time I saw you, Mellin.” “How could you?” he gasped. “Marla, I had nothing to say to you but angry words, and I treated you like – like the dirt beneath my feet! How could you have cared for me?” “Mellin, all you said, all you did, even if hurt me, sprang from your implacable hatred of Darkness. Do you know what that meant to me? Yes, Aiel and Arenel and Aila hate Darkness, but they are born of the Priesthood, and have Perception. But you are a man with no Priestly heritage, none of their powers, and you chose Light, loved Light, so much that you would not touch even the edge of Darkness – would not touch me until you were certain I was not on the side of Darkness. Oh, you were so different from the evil men I had seen in the East, so clean and true and honourable. And I loved you for it. But how could I dare to hope you would love me, when I had been raised with no hope of anything but one day to be forced to serve Darkness?” Marla’s voice trembled, but it was Mellin who was weeping now, as she went on “How could I ever think myself worthy of your love? I would never have said a word if I had known you could hear me, but oh,” with a catch in her voice, “I was so afraid you were dead!” “Marla!” he said, his voice choked with tears, “Do not – do not say such things! You unworthy of me ? Sweet Light, it is I who am unworthy of your love! Praise Light I did hear you say you loved me, or I might never have had what is most precious of all things save Light to me – your heart. I cannot understand, dear love, how you could have felt as you did for me while I was treating you so badly, but I thank Light for your true and constant heart.” Then, all explanations done, they stood quietly in each other’s arms, finding reassurance and healing, as Aila had wisely known, in being together.

Meanwhile in the Great Hall the others had also overcome their reactions to the recent events, and Aila said “Praise Light that the Bloodstone is destroyed.” “They expected Marla to be its wielder, not its destroyer.” Aiel said. “No wonder her Way was prophecied, for she has been an instrument of Light.” Janir said thoughtfully “I understand now why Mellin was so overcome with relief after Marla’s Changing. Hard enough to think of having to slay a friend in mercy, but a beloved – ah, that would be pain beyond belief.” Aila answered “I never believed that Light would ask that of him. But I also believed that if he had to, he would have done it, because he loves her, and would not want her to go through what was intended for her by the Children of Night.” Then she smiled, and added, “But no need to speak of such dark things, for all is well with them.” Lin leaned back in his chair and said thoughtfully “Yet still, Mellin has surprised me. Oh, I meant what I said to Marla, and I am happy for them, but he seemed to despise her so at first, and even after he accepted the truth of her longing for Light, I imagined he thought of her only as a friend. I did not imagine that he would fall in love with her.” Aila said “He told me that he was angry and afraid, because he felt her tug at his heart and was afraid that she was weaving some sorcery round him. He tried not to love her, for even after he knew her search for Light was real, he still felt that somehow he wronged Light in loving her, since she was born of Darkness. Then, of course, there was the threat of the pledge he had made her. He was very unhappy. But I helped him carry it to Light, and he gained some measure of comfort and reassurance, and accepted that his love for her did not contradict his love for Light.” Lin smiled at her, and said “So you comforted Mellin and kept his secret. Thank you, Aila.” She smiled back and said, “Ah, but he kept my secret too, for I confessed only to him that I loved Janir.” And Janir gave her a loving look, leaving her feeling blessed. “I will see if they have recovered now” Aila said, and went back to the Healing Place. Tapping on the door first, she went in , and found Mellin and Marla much revived, and happy now that they had talked things out. They followed her back to the Great Hall to join the others. Zohra whispered something to Arenel and slipped away, returning quickly with her harp case. “A little calming music, I think” she said, and began to play. As always, her power of music had a quietening yet uplifting effect on them, and they began to relax and put the morning’s events behind them. If Arenel, always quiet and calm, spoke little, nobody took much notice. But he was torn between joy for his sister and Janir, Mellin and Marla, in their love and happiness, and the sorrow he felt because he saw no prospect of his own love for Zohra coming to such a happy conclusion. ‘For we must return soon’ he thought ‘and she will go back to her own place and her own people. And in time, no doubt, she will wed some Western warrior, and I will be only a faint memory -if that.’ Later, though, Aila, who had sensed something of her brother’s mixed and perturbed emotions, did come to him to ask if anything was wrong, but he could not tell her, only smiling lovingly at her, and telling her “Oh, it is nothing, Aila – nothing to disturb you. It will be well with me. Do not fret over me, dear sister, go and be happy with Janir. He will be good to you, Aila.” “I know” she said softly, and kissed her brother’s cheek, and went away as he bade her, guessing, quite wrongly, that perhaps he was sad to lose her companionship, though he rejoiced in her happiness with Janir.


Chapter 10

The threatening Tides were over now, and they could leave for the Gatehouse. They mounted for the journey, Aiel and Arenel going first, Perceptions extended for any hint of Darkness, and the three Swordsmen last, the girls well-guarded in between. They bade farewell to the Priests of the Faring House and rode down the main street of the Merchant Town to its gates, and out into the country beyond, heading North. For some time they rode through farmlands, and the tracks were well-marked and easy. After a while, though, the farmlands gave way to wild grassland, rough and windy, and cooler than they were used to in their own lands. Aiel remembered that it was after this point in their journey on the Lightstone Way that they had been misdirected by Lak’s enchantment which had tried to lead them into a deadly bog. He was very careful, now, to follow the right path. The ground rose slowly and steadily and there were few landmarks but, guided by the Lightstone, Aiel was sure of the way, and there were signs that others, though not many, had also travelled this route. They came to a small hill, which Aiel and Lin recognised as a place where they had paused to eat on the Lightstone Way. That had been a hurried halt, under pressure of the urgent need to reach the Gatehouse before Lak could harm the Dancers. Now they took a more leisurely meal, then remounted, the two Way-Sharers knowing they were heading for the little wood where they could shelter for the night. All seemed well with them thus far, for neither those with Perception, nor Marla with her ‘Dark Perception’, felt any sense of Darkness or danger. At last they reached the wood, with its strange trees and spring of water. Those who had not seen it before remarked on the strangeness of it, and Aiel told them about the refreshingly scented leaves, which they tried for themselves, and agreed how pleasant the perfume was. With no spies of Darkness near they were able to gather stones and make a rough hearth for a small fire to warm them.

Aiel told them “Tomorrow we should be able to stay in a village.” but they were all growing accustomed to making camp now and it was no hardship. Though there seemed to be little danger, the three Swordsmen still said they would take turns on watch that night. There was no disturbance in the night, though, and with the fire, and warmly wrapped, they all slept well. When they set out again next morning, Aiel knew that soon they would need to ride through the defile where the Children of Night had attacked the four Way-Sharers on the Lightstone Way. Wondering if it might still be a place of danger, he again sent out his Perception, but found no Darkness near. He was also reassured by knowing that he was not the only one, this time, who was able to Perceive Darkness and danger. He felt a sense of nervousness from Lin, too; no doubt his memories of that time were also stirring. He turned in the saddle to reassure the Swordsman “It is well, Lin. I Perceive no Darkness there this time.” They rode through the defile in silence, for though there was no danger of attack, there still might be an earth or rock fall. Nothing happened, though, to trouble them and they emerged safely on the other side. The fall that had blocked the defile behind them on the Lightstone Way had been cleared many years since, and there was no hindrance to their passage. They could see, far and misty in the distance, the mountains where the Meeting Place and the Gatehouse were, but knew they were still a fair way from them. They could, as Aiel had said, spend the night in the village where he and Lin had stayed before, though it would mean a slight detour from their route. From there they knew it was about a two days’ ride to the Gatehouse, if they travelled at a normal pace, and not with the urgent speed of the Lightstone Way. As long as they were not threatened or pursued, there was no need to make such haste, and Aiel, knowing what lay ahead for Marla, was unwilling to use up her strength in travelling at speed.

Accordingly, they turned towards the village, riding up the ridge that overlooked the valley where Lak’s illusory Dark Warriors had been set to try to turn them from the Lightstone Way, years before. Now, though, it was quiet and peaceful, and they crossed it and rode up the next ridge. They rode at an easy pace, chatting quietly from time to time, and Aila was glad to see that Marla seemed relaxed and comfortable. With a couple of breaks for refreshment, the day passed and they reached the village and rode towards the inn where Aiel and Lin had stayed before. The inn had a new innkeeper, a younger man, but just as hospitable. He was glad to provide food and lodgings for the night, and welcomed them in a friendly manner. The fact that Aiel, Arenel and Aila were so obviously a family, and Lin, Mellin and Janir also evidently kin, made them less conspicuous than Aiel had feared, as they were taken for a group of family and friends. Even Zohra’s presence, Aiel thought, might be easily explained by the tokens of the West that Janir bore, for she might be taken for his sweetheart, in view of those. If there were any among the villagers present who might have seen Aiel and Lin on their previous visit, they must have long forgotten, for no one claimed acquaintance with them. They spent a pleasant evening and restful night at the inn, and even Marla ate a good breakfast. The horses were brought, and they paid and thanked the innkeeper and set off again. Aiel told them “Only two days’ ride now, to the Gatehouse.” then he smiled at Marla and added “And then we shall free Marla from Darkness!” Marla smiled back and said, joyfully, “And I shall attain Light!”

It was a thought that encouraged them all, knowing they were nearing the end of Marla’s Way and, so far, after the failed attempt of the Children of Night to recapture her, and the other girls with her, there had been no more signs of danger. They still kept alert, though, knowing how cunning the Dark Ones could be. With this in mind Aiel, realising that on the Lightstone Way they had travelled faster, asked Lin, when they paused to rest and eat, “Do you think we can reach the caves today? We made haste last time, and travel more slowly now. Yet I would rather make camp there, than risk the open country.” Lin replied “If we go a little faster, and travel for longer, we should. It may be late when we reach them, but we can leave later tomorrow. It will not be so far from there to the Gatehouse.” Taking Lin’s advice, Aiel said to the others “If we are to reach the caves, we shall need to go faster, and travel longer, but they are safe, where open country may not be. Do you all feel able to make the journey? Marla?” Marla thought for a moment, then said, “I think I am well enough used to riding now, Aiel. And the hope of attaining Light sustains me. It will be well with me.” The others too agreed to press on, so the decision was made. Even so, Aiel said quietly to Lin as they remounted “The caves are our last stop before the Gatehouse, and the last chance for the Children of Night to come against us. We must take care.” “You think they might try to surprise us among the caves?” Lin asked. “I do not know. I have sensed no Darkness near. It seems unlikely, but we must still keep guard.” “We will” Lin promised “as we have before. Marla’s Way draws too near to a successful end to let it fail now.”

Though they were riding faster, dusk and then nightfall still overtook them before they reached the caves at the top of the steep rise. Aiel had taken out the Lightstone and let it lie gleaming on his breast to encourage them in the darkness, but it was still with great relief that they reached the shelter of the caves. They busied themselves tethering their mounts, preparing a fire, sleeping places, and food, then seated themselves round the fire to eat. Mellin, catching a sombre look on Lin’s face, asked “Father, what is it? Does something here worry you?” Aiel looked up and his Perception caught, for a moment, Lin’s remembrance of past concerns. He said “Mellin, the night we Way-Sharers spent here was a dark one, and I think your father is remembering it.” He smiled, then, at Lin , and said “True Sword of the Lightstone Way, he had such concern for me.” Lin said, gruffly, “Aye”, and that was all, but now the younger ones were curious. So Aiel explained “It was the night before we reached the Gatehouse, the last night before I must do battle with Lak for the Dancers, and prevent him overcoming them with his Dark music and bringing the Darkness down into Li’is. I was very burdened, for the Dark powers attacked me – no, not physically, but in my mind and spirit and Perception. I had to fight, and Lin’s sword could not help me in this, for there was no physical enemy.” He looked again at his friend, with deep affection, and went on, “And he felt it keenly – Arentha and Krystha too, but Lin was sworn to protect me and I know it hurt him that he could not. Yet he and Arentha and Krystha went to prayer for me, and that was the weapon that helped me. Lin, do not concern yourself with the ghosts of old hurts, for when the time came for physical action, you did protect me, and almost lost your own life to do it!”

Now Lin smiled back, and said “Still, it was a hard thing to see you suffer like that, Aiel. But you are right, all is long over and done and it is well.” Marla said, tremulously, “Yet despite all that, you are willing to help me, Aiel?” The Lightstone-Bearer said gently “Marla, I think it is because of that, that I have some understanding of how you feel, under threat from Darkness. And your Way is also part of the Lightstone Way that we are sworn to.” Aila, wanting to lighten the mood, said “Marla, tomorrow we shall learn what is to be done to free you from Darkness. Is that not wonderful?” “Yes!” the other girl said, and they began to discuss the possibilities, and the promises of Light to Marla, sweeping away any unhappy memories. It was not long, though, before they slept, tired with the long ride and late night. They slept late after their journey, but there was no urgency, and no sense of Darkness near, and they could take their time. It was late morning before they had eaten, and done all that had to be done, and were on the move again. The sun was shining, and the fresh Northern lands were pleasant, in their own way. The faint track leading towards the Gatehouse showed them the way, and they chatted quietly and companionably as they rode. They could see the mountains growing nearer, and Mellin, remembering their conversation about the sea-cats, said “I wonder if it will ever be permitted, to cross those mountains?” “It is in the Will of Light” Arenel answered his cousin. “One day, maybe, if Light’s purposes require it.” At last they came to the wide green dale which lay below the mountains. Across it they could see the Gatehouse, at the foor of the Dancers’ Mountain, which was split by the funnel in the rock face that ended in the Meeting Place. Aiel sent out his Perception to greet the Gatekeeper, and Tor-Harat replied that he would be waiting for them.

All of them now were filled in varying degrees with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation as they approached the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place. This was the climax of Marla’s Way, and the next day or so would see them undertake the measures necessary to free Marla forever from her Dark heritage and the threat that hung over her so that she could become what she longed for most of all, a Child of Light. Aiel was wondering, since Lin had been so moved for a while by the shadow of past trials, what the Swordsman might feel on his return to the place where he had fought so hard for his life after being wounded saving Aiel from Soom’s attack. His friend and Way-Sharer, though, seemed intent only on bringing Marla safely to the Gatehouse, and Aiel heard him encouraging the girl, and smiled with satisfaction that Lin was back to his normal spirits. After crossing the dale they were soon riding up to the Gatehouse, and Tor-Harat and Lady Benika were at the door to meet them, both older, but very familiar to Aiel and Lin. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, welcome!” Tor-Harat called as they drew near. “It is good to see you again.” As they dismounted, Lady Benika asked “Arentha and Krystha are not with you?” “Not this time. Krystha is bearing a child, and Arentha has stayed with her.” Aiel replied, then smiled, and said “But here are our families, Lady Benika. My son and daughter, Arenel and Aila, and Lin’s son Mellin and nephew Janir.” The kindly Healer welcomed them, and Tor-Harat said “And you have a Westerner with you! Welcome, maiden. We rarely see any of the Ketai here.” “Zohra, the granddaughter of the Ket” Aiel explained. “She is our ‘melody’ on this way, as Aila is our ‘healing’.” Then this maiden is Marla?” the Gatekeeper asked, turning towards her with a welcoming smile. “Aiel has told us something of your story, child. We are glad to help you.” “Thank you, Gatekeeper.” Marla answered.

They went inside the Gatehouse, the younger ones looking round them at the building that was so well known to Aiel and Lin. Aiel asked the Gatekeeper “Have the Dancers told you what is to happen here, Tor-Harat?” The Gatekeeper said “They have, Aiel. It seems we must expect an awesome visitor.” Aiel commented “It is a measure of Light’s love for Marla. She does not seek Light only for herself, Tor-Harat. She is determined that she will never let the Children of Night force her to become the Bloodstone-wielder and a curse upon Li’is. Her Way is also the Way of the Secret Word.” The Gatekeeper answered “The Dancers too have said they have respect for her. She is a true Child of Light at heart, Aiel, for all that she has not yet attained Light.” “I will need to go to the Meeting Place” Aiel told him. “The Dancers will give me the final instructions for Marla’s Changing.” “Then I will come with you, so I know how to prepare the House.” Tor-Harat promised. Meanwhile Lady Benika had led the others into the Hall and had drinks brought to refresh them after their ride. It was now late afternoon, and would be dusk soon, so Aiel and Tor-Harat came into the Hall and told the rest of the party to rest, while they went to the Dancers. After they had gone, the others began to wonder what the Dancers would tell them. “Do you think it will be soon?” Marla asked excitedly. Aila considered, and said “Light will not keep you in Darkness, Marla, but it is late in the day now. I think you will need to rest before we begin the Changing. Tomorrow, I am sure!” Arenel agreed “Aila is right, Marla. There will be preparations to be made, and as she said, we have had a long journey here and you need to rest. Light has a time for everything, and your Changing will have its proper time.” Lady Benika came back into the Hall and said she would show them their rooms, and then have a meal prepared for them when Aiel returned. Aila told the other Healer, quietly, that she doubted any of them could eat much, being so full of nervous anticipation, and Lady Benika agreed, but said “You know you should try to persuade Marla to eat, Aila, she will have need of strength for the Changing.”

It seemed a long time before Aiel and Tor-Harat came back from the Meeting Place, and all of them were eager to know what they had been told, but Aiel kept his counsel. “Tomorrow” he told them “I will tell you all what you need to know. We must abide by Light’s timing, which is perfect.” “But it will be tomorrow?” begged Marla, and he said “Yes, Marla, it will be tomorrow. But not till evening. And meanwhile you must gather what strength you may, child. It will be a battle for you.” “I will try” she answered. She looked relieved, and Aila guessed that having a time set for her Changing, whatever battles might lie ahead for her, meant everything to Marla. Mellin, though, looked troubled, for the idea of Marla having to do battle worried him. When the meal was served, Marla did try to eat, encouraged by Aila and Zohra, but managed very little, and none of them had much appetite. Aila noticed that Mellin too ate very little, and felt compassion for her cousin, knowing his secret love for Marla made him vulnerable to every threat to her. After the meal Zohra, sensing the currents of varying emotions among them, slipped away and returned with her harp. Then she seated herself, and began to play and sing. The melody was unfamiliar to Aila and she wondered if it were one of Zohra’s own compositions, but it was gently uplifting and soothing, and they began to relax. Tor-Harat and Lady Benika came to listen too, drawn by the music, and when the piece ended the Gatekeeper said quietly to Aiel “No wonder you chose Zohra for melody, she has a true gift.” “It was Light chose her for the Way, and gifted her with music.” Aiel told him. Zohra went on playing for them, and the music had a calming effect. Arenel, watching the Westerner as she lost herself in her own world of melody, was unable to hold back his feelings of love for her, even though he had decided it was useless to love her, believing she would never return his love. However hard he tried to push his feelings away, they insisted on returning. Despite the soothing music, though, none of them slept easily when they retired. There was too much to imagine, too much at stake, and all of them slept fitfully, even Aiel, wondering what the next evening would bring.

It was a relief when morning came, though the day stretched ahead of them and it seemed evening would never come. The day was bright and fair, and Lady Benika suggested that they walk in the Gatehouse Gardens to pass some of the time. Aiel and Lin were busy in consultation with Tor-Harat, but the younger ones went out into the Gardens. The three girls walked together and Aila and Zohra tried to distract Marla by drawing her attention to the beauties of the Gardens. Arenel and the two young Swordsmen followed behind them, alert for any danger even here. Aila was aware of Arenel’s Perception, of Janir’s beloved presence, of Mellin’s concern. They all tried to behave as though it were a normal day, but they all knew it was not. Aila wondered again about the Spirit-in-Light that had been promised, to aid Marla’s Changing, but could not begin to imagine what would happen that evening. She felt at once excited and afraid, and knew the others must feel the same. Eventually they turned back towards the Gatehouse, all of them feeling unable to continue simply passing time, and hoping that by now Aiel would be able to tell them more about Marla’s Changing. Coming back into the Gatehouse, they found preparations underway for the midday meal, and Lady Benika told them that Aiel, Lin and Tor-Harat were making some preparations in the Prayer Room, but would rejoin them shortly. For the rest of the day, she said, the Prayer Room was not to be used. “Marla, if you can, you should eat and rest before this evening” the Healer told her, “but I know it will not be easy for you.” Shortly before the midday meal was served, Gatekeeper, Lightstone-Bearer and Swordsman came back to them. They looked grimly satisfied. Aiel said “We are almost prepared now. Try to eat, all of you. We will need strength for what is to come.” Once again they took a meal that most of them had difficulty managing, though in view of Aiel’s words they tried to eat. Marla, though, despite Aila’s encouragement, could eat very little, and her friend thought it was no wonder, when she herself could barely eat with the prospect of the night ahead. When they had done their best with the meal, Aiel said “Now it is time to begin. First, Light’s strengthening.” He moved round the table, laying the Lightstone to each one’s brow in turn, except for Marla, who still could not receive the Lightstone’s blessing. After that he said “Now come here, all of you, and I will tell you what must be done, and your part in it.”

They gathered round the Lightstone-Bearer to hear his words, all of them hushed and full of anticipation. Aiel said “Tonight, as night falls, we shall begin Marla’s Changing. Arenel and Aila and I will take you to the Prayer Room, Marla. Remember what we are promised! We shall have the aid of a Spirit-in-Light” he paused a moment, as if awed anew by the thought, then went on “and with that aid, and the Lightstone, the Darkness will be cast out of your soul, and your spirit will waken in Light. Then at dawn we will go to the Dancers on the Meeting Place and they will change the rhythm of your body, from flesh of Ma’al to flesh of Li’is. That was the word the Dancers brought me.” Marla asked “Aiel – if I were to die in the Changing, would I still attain Light?” There was no fear in her voice, and Aiel took and held her hand, answering “I have not asked that, Marla. But I believe you would, because you would be giving yourself for Light.” He looked round at the others, and went on “Lin, Mellin, Janir, you must guard the Prayer Room while we are there. Nobody must enter, not even the Gatekeeper himself. Do you understand?” The three Swordsmen nodded, and Lin, speaking for them all, said “We understand. “Zohra” Aiel said “I am sorry that there is nothing for you to do. But you are to come with us to the Meeting Place. The Dancers said so, and Marla may need you as well as Aila there. And you can pray to Light for us, this night.” “I will!” Zohra assured him, her dark eyes very solemn. “Aila” Aiel turned to his daughter “The Dancers said there would be physical effects from the soul-cleansing. You should bring your herb-sack with you.” “I will go to the Healing Place” Aila said “and fetch what I may need.” “That is all” Aiel said . “It is a few hours yet, to nightfall. It is best that we try to rest our spirits and seek Light, in whatever way we may.” Seeing that they were dismissed, Aila headed for the Healing Place to gather what she might need to help Marla. As she went out of the door, she heard Mellin call after her, and waited for her cousin. She did not need to ask why he had called her, but said gently “Come with me to the Healing Place, Mellin.” He followed her in silence, and when they entered the long, double room with its benches and couches, she was thankful to see it was empty. Aila fastened the door behind them and turned to her distressed cousin. “Mellin?”

“Oh Aila, I am so afraid for her! Is it really possible that she might – she might die?” “My dear, I do not know! Who knows the ways of Light? I believe that Aiel my father is right and that whatever happens to her body, her spirit will attain Light. If she lives, she lives in Light, and if she should…die, then she will be in the Joyous Place, in the Presence of Light.” Mellin said, very softly, so that she could hardly hear him “If she dies – then I think I will want to die too.” “Mellin, Light is merciful, and knows how you love her. But if – if – it should be the will of Light that she lives no longer in Li’is, can you not still trust?” “I want to trust! I do not wish to betray Light! But to have her taken from me, never even to know that I loved her – oh, Aila!” Aila, Perceiving his deep distress, knew what her cousin was going through. She said “Did I not tell you to come to me, when the pain grew hard to bear, and we would carry it to Light together? Come, Mellin, let us seek Light.” Her cousin’s grey eyes surrendered to her Perception, and she helped him lift his fears and needs to Light, being honest about his lack of trust, seeking a deepening and strengthening of his reliance on Light. And Mellin’s honesty, his admission of his needs, was answered, she knew. Mellin received the mercy of Light, the love and reassurance, that he needed, but also, within himself, a growth in Light. As though it were a seed, rooted in need, watered with tears, but nourished by Light, a stronger faith grew in him. Withdrawing her Perception, Aila folded her cousin in a comforting embrace and said “You see, Mellin? There is no need for fear. Whatever happens will be Light’s best for Marla – and for you.” “I know” he said “Oh, thank you, Aila!” There was a soft knock on the door of the Healing Place, and Mellin opened it. It was Janir, and he glanced at Mellin’s face, which was still a little strained, and asked, with concern, “Is it well with you, Sword-Brother?” Mellin smiled at his kinsman. “Yes, Janir it is well with me – now.” To Aila he said “Thank you again for your help, Aila.” and was gone before Janir could question him further. Janir turned an enquiring face to Aila. “He has been unhappy about – something.” she said. “But we have laid it before Light, and he feels better now.”

Janir closed the door and reached for her hand. “I too am unhappy, Aila” he said, and there was a shadow in his eyes.”Will it be safe for you, this Changing? You have Perception, but you are not of the Priesthood – you do not have their skills. To be part of such a task – might it not harm you?” “Janir, my love, can you not trust me to Light?” He frowned, but at himself, not her. “I should, I know I should! Did not Light save your life before? Yet I cannot help but be fearful, my heart. There is nothing save Light that is more precious to me than you.” What was it, she wondered, about human love that made it, though a gift of Light, still able to become a barrier to trust, to faith in Light? She had said to Janir “Love me, but not more than Light.” Yet she knew that if he had been in danger she would probably have felt the same as he did about her. His need was the same as Mellin’s, and the answer was the same. To Janir too she offered her Perception and helped him lay his fear before Light and receive forgiveness and assurance. This time, though, it was Janir who embraced her, murmuring “Praise Light!” before kissing her tenderly. Sweet as it was to be with him, though, she had other, more vital tasks, and she sent him away, in peace, and went on with her work, What kind of reaction might come upon Marla? Aila gathered stimulants in case of faintness, calming draughts in case of hysteria, herbs that would deal with nausea, cramps, muscle spasms and other physical symptoms, salves for wounds or bruises, strips of cloth for bandaging. She had no idea what to expect, and prayed that she would be equal to her task.

Arenel, too was nervous. He was concerned for Marla, and anxious, in a different way, for Aila, and he felt that it was almost a betrayal of his sister that he felt glad – very glad – that for Zohra there was no task to perform, no danger. He tucked that thought away very carefully into the recesses of his mind, into the depths where no other’s Perception would Trespass. The young Priest, like his sister, hoped that he would be equal to his part in this, and sought Light for sustaining. Lin, when his son and nephew returned, had taken them to examine the corridors and passages leading to the Prayer Room, to find the best defensive positions. Zohra was helping Marla by doing what she did best. Settling the other girl in a comfortable chair, the Westerner had seated herself on a stool by Marla’s feet and taken up her harp. Then she began to sing and to play, beginning with vibrant, joyful praise-songs and running through a progression of ever quieter, more peaceful music, until she was playing one sweet, flowing, gentle harmony, full of peace and quiet joy, flowing on and on like a rippling stream. Marla leaned back in her chair listening, soothed by the lovely sound. Aiel was in the Prayer Room, making the preparations that had been outlined to him by the Dancers, wondering and wondering about the promised Spirit-in-Light. Once before he had felt the presence of a Shining One, when he had become entrapped in the evil mind of the Black Piper, a consciousness that was more than man. the awful symbiosis of man at his most evil, and the Dark spirit that governed the man. Unable to escape, his Perception had almost been swallowed up, when that bright presence had come to him from Light and torn him free. Amid the horror and fear surrounding him he had felt the awesome power of that mighty helper. And yet, he reminded himself, the Spirit-in-Light was, like himself, only a creation and servant of Light.

Thus, in their various ways, each of them made preparations for Marla’s Changing, and as it drew near to sunset, they reassembled. “Now it begins!” Aiel announced. “You are all ready?” and when they signed assent, he asked gently “Marla, how is it with you?” “I am afraid, of course I am. But if I shall attain Light whatever happens, then that does not matter!” the girl declared. As they entered the Prayer Room, Aila and Arenel looked round to see what preparations Aiel had been making. Their father had called them first to the room, bidding Marla wait with Zohra until they had prayed and made spiritual preparation, but Aiel’s children saw that the room was physically ready. All the benches in the place had been pushed back to the walls, clearing a large space in front of the crucible. Spread across this area was the thick wall-hanging which usually hung behind the Crucible, and it was piled with cushions at one end. To one side stood a long table with wooden Healer’s cups, pitchers of milk and clear spring water, a small bowl for herb preparation. Aila set out the contents of her herb-sack on this table and saw that beneath it stood a large pottery bowl and a basket of soft cloths. What was it that her father had prepared for? “Aila, Arenel” Aiel summoned them, and they joined him before the Crucible. Swiftly they wove the chain of the Thought-without-Words, linking their Perceptions. Then they went to prayer. Aiel lifted them, lifted Marla, to the mercy of Light. He made the Cleansing Prayers, and the Prayer for Protection, drawing them and Marla, all their company and all they did, under the covering of the Sacrifice of Light. When all was done, Aiel smiled reassuringly at Aila and Arenel, and told his daughter “Aila, bring Marla now.” Aila was grateful for Zohra, who had stayed at Marla’s side, playing her calming music, comforting her, encouraging her, and now, as Aila led the other girl away to the Prayer Room, called after them “Light be with you, Marla dear – and with you, Aila! I shall not cease praying for you.”

As they entered the Prayer Room, Marla’s eyes flashed round, taking in all the strangeness of Aiel’s preparations for the Changing. Then they settled, questioning but full of trust, on Aiel’s face. Aiel smiled at her with tender encouragement, and asked “Ready, Marla?” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. He drew out the Lightstone and held it in his cupped hands, concentrating on its soft glow. Through their linked Perceptions, his children heard him call to the Dancers. They waited expectantly. Scarcely a second passed before a shimmer in the air revealed the presence of a Dancer, and the tall blue-green flame appeared, barely fitting under the domed roof of the Prayer Room. At any other time Aila and Arenel would have been overwhelmed with wonder at this happening, but now they were too tense with anticipation of what lay before them. Marla stared up at the Dancer, but her face showed no emotion. The light-being’s blue-green gleam reflected in her green-and-silver eyes, giving them a strange glow. Aiel said “Dancer, we are ready to begin. Summon the Shining One.” The Dancer blinked out in an instant, and they waited, nerves taut-strung, wondering what form their awesome visitor would take. There was a shimmer in the air, as though the Dancer had returned, but it grew to a blazing light, brighter even than the Lightstone at its fiercest, so that they covered their eyes, cowering. Then suddenly the light was gone, and a very gentle voice said “Children of Light, do not be afraid.” Timidly, Aila and Arenel opened their eyes. When the after-dazzle had faded from their sight, they saw that the voice had come from a figure standing by the Crucible, where the blaze of light had been. It appeared to be the figure of a young man, dressed in dazzling white. His face was noble and beautiful, his eyes burned like molten gold, and he was still with a stillness that was pure peace. Even the air about him seemed cleaner and fresher, as though his presence burned out all uncleanness in it. They were rapt with awe and wonder, but Marla fell to her knees, then prostrate on the floor, weeping.

“Marla” came the gentle voice again “do not be afraid. And do not bow to me. I am a created being like yourself, though this body is only a garment I wear to make me visible to you. Light has sent me to help you.” Encouraged by the kindly words, Marla raised her head, and Aila went to her friend and helped her to her feet. Aiel, his gaze fixed on the Spirit-in-Light, asked “What are we to do for Marla, Shining One?” “Aiel, with my aid and the Lightstone’s you will set your Perception on Marla and we shall drive out the Darkness that is hidden in her. But the Darkness will fight, and may manifest itself physically, trying to harm Marla’s body. Aila, you are the Healer, and it is your task to deal with Marla’s physical needs. Arenel, you must help Aila. She has not all the Disciplines of the Priesthood, as you have. Keep the link with her, and lead her in the Quieting Prayers as she works with Marla. But the link with Aiel you both must break, for only the Lightstone-Bearer – and then with my aid – can step into Marla’s mind while the Darkness is still in her. And Marla, again I say, do not be afraid. Your part is to open yourself to the Will of Light, and reject the Darkness from you. I tell you that you are beloved of Light, because you seek Light with all of your being. Light will not reject you – you shall attain Light. But it will be a very painful thing, to drive the Darkness from you. You must have courage, child.” But Marla’s face had lit with joy at the Shining One’s promise, and she exclaimed “What is pain – even death – if Light loves me, and will accept me? Oh, I would give up anything for that!” Surely the Shining One’s face, a mere dress of flesh-like appearance, could not show emotion? Yet the bright being seemed visibly moved, and even folded the pale girl in a paternally tender embrace, saying, “Yes, you are Light’s beloved and you shall be Light’s child.” Aila’s eyes stung with tears of joy for her friend. “Light is merciful!” she murmured. “You understand that it will still be hard to free you of Darkness?” the Spirit-in-Light asked Marla. “The seed of Light that was set in your spirit before you were born has kept you this far, but the Darkness that was also born in you still lurks there, waiting. It must be rejected by you, and cast out, so that Light may enter fully. It will be as though you struggled to birth something, Marla – but it is your own true self, in Light, that you will be birthing.” “I understand” said Marla, pale and calm. “When may we begin, Shining One?” “Now.” he told her. “Aiel, break the link with Aila and Arenel, and look into the Lightstone.”

Aiel’s children felt his Perception withdraw from the Thought-without-Words, while they stayed linked through it. They watched as once more he cupped the Lightstone in his hands and gazed into it. The Shining One turned to face Aiel. The Lightstone blazed. Marla reached out a hand towards Aila, who took it. Arenel took the girl’s other hand, wanting to help, to comfort, too. The Shining One seemed to step forward, through the blaze of the Lightstone and, somehow, through Aiel too – and vanished! Marla gave a little cry of alarm, but Aila squeezed her hand and said “It is well, Marla.” And then Aiel raised his head and there was such a holy peace in his face that they knew that in some amazing way his Perception was linked with the very thought of the Shining One, that somehow the Spirit-in-Light had actually entered into Aiel’s Perception. Marla took one look at the Lightstone-Bearer’s transformed face and said “Yes, it is well, Aila! No Darkness in me can harm him now.” The girl stepped forward to stand in front of Aiel, and tipped up her face, eyes confidently lifted to his, surrendering to his awesomely enhanced Perception. Aiel let the Lightstone fall onto his chest and took Marla’s face between his hands, setting his Perception on her. The movements, the Perceiving, were so familiar to Aila and Arenel, and yet somehow it seemed as though they had never seen Perception used before. For a while there was silence, and Marla seemed quiet, receptive, under Aiel’s Perception. Aila began to hope that, after all, Marla’s determination, Aiel’s Perception through the Lightstone ,and the Shining One’s powers had combined in a force too strong for any Darkness to fight against. However, soon they saw a change in Marla. Her body, which had been relaxed, stiffened visibly. Her lips drew back, her head rolled from side to side, a strange hissing sound escaped her lips. Aiel seemed unperturbed, though it seemed as though his concentration deepened.

Suddenly Marla screamed, a horrible, high-pitched shriek. Then she was down, rolling on the pile of cushions, her body arching and twisting. Arenel’s thought stabbed into Aila’s Perception. “Is it a fit?” “No” she answered, as silently, “Or not a natural one!” Aila hurried to kneel by Marla. Aiel spoke out, his voice deep, his word incomprehensible, for again he was speaking in the strange, unknown tongue he had used against Si-Mara’s enchantment in the Fortress. Marla shrieked and convulsed again as Aiel’s commanding voice went on. There was one final paroxysm before Aiel stopped speaking and Marla slumped limp and trembling across Aila’s lap. “Aila, give her a draught” Aiel ordered, and Aila hurried to obey. “Oh, Father, is it over?” she asked, as she supported Marla while the girl drank the reviving draught. Aiel said, a little sadly, Aila thought, “Not yet.” Then, to Marla, “There is more to endure yet, child. Can you bear it?” “For Light, anything!” the girl exclaimed. “Oh, but it felt as though something was ripped out of my soul by the roots, Aiel!” “It was!” he told her. “We have rid you of part of the Darkness, Marla, but there is more.” “Then go on!” she told him, and lifted her face to his again. The Prayer Room seemed very still, the Crucible flame never wavering, as Aiel bent his head and set his Perception on Marla once more. His Priest’s eyes glowed more vividly than Aila or Arenel had ever seen them. Aila moved closer, ready to help at any sign of distress in Marla. The stillness in the room grew stronger, seeming oppressive, like the dead calm before a summer storm. Arenel glanced at Aila, and he felt his shared thought “Aila, be careful! This is not-” and then, quicker even than his Perception could reach hers, a sudden Darkness swelled in the room. Aila felt a momentary surge of fear, then Arenel’s mind was with hers again. “Aila, do not fear it. It will feed on your fear. Come now, the Quieting Prayers! Follow me…”

Aila did not know that she was murmuring aloud as she spoke the words of the Quieting Prayers after her brother, but as she lifted her fears to Light, she felt them fade and die as Light strengthened her. The threatening Darkness was not interested in her, though, nor Arenel. It was Aiel that the thing confonted, solidifying now into a form he knew well, a tall, pale, black-haired, black-clad man with eyes of burning green. It was Lak, the Black Piper, his old enemy – though whether it were Lak himself, whom Aiel had thought long dead, or the Lord of Darkness with whom Lak had shared his body, taking the convenient form of its vassal, Aiel did not know. Marla, the link with Aiel’s Perception broken by the intrusion, gasped, “Oh, what -who-is it, Aiel?” Aiel, eyes fixed on the Dark thing, not in fear, but in defiance, answered her “I do not know what it is, Marla, but it takes the form of Lak, the Black Piper.” Marla’s eyes widened, and though she pressed the back of her fist into her mouth to stifle it, a strange, whimpering moan escaped her lips. Lak – if it were him- spoke. It was an eerie, chilling voice which seemed somehow to echo in the quiet room, sibilant and threatening. “This is my seed. It is mine!” Marla shuddered with fear as the Dark One made its claim on her. Aila drew nearer and put one arm protectively around the other girl. Aiel said, firmly, “Marla has a spirit and a soul of her own. They are not yours. She wishes to follow Light.” Lak’s face contorted with anger. “This body is mine. I will take it!” Then Aiel knew for sure that this was not the man Lak but a Lord of Darkness, the one which had possessed Lak and now sought to possess his daughter. “In the Name of Light” Aiel said, very clearly, and saw ‘Lak’ flinch as though it had been struck “keep away from Marla. She is protected of Light, and you shall not have her!” “I have right to her – my seed is in her. She is born of Darkness and I have set my seed and my mark in her!” “And so has Light!” Aiel answered. “You have no right to her, Lord of Darkness. She is Light’s.”

‘Lak’s’ mouth opened wide, wider than any human mouth could have done, and a great and terrible roar of fury shook the Prayer Room. Suddenly the Lord of Darkness whirled, clutching at Marla, but Aila was quicker, and snatched her friend away. This move, though, left her facing the evil thing, and it bent its burning green eyes on her. For a moment she felt her Perception caught and held, and terror rose in her as she struggled to be free. She heard, as though from far away, Arenel crying out to her “Aila…do not look at him….” but she was powerless to look away, and felt as though her very soul was being swallowed up. Then suddenly a great blaze of light flashed into her eyes, breaking the terrible grip on her Perception. Dazzled, gasping, she stumbled a few steps, then her brother’s arms closed on her and his Perception melded with hers again, leading her once more in the Quieting Prayers till the terror was gone. Looking up from Arenel’s protecting embrace, she saw that the Shining One had reappeared, burning like a fire, It stood against the Lord of Darkness, and though there were no signs of a physical struggle, it was evident that a battle was going on. The air in the room was electric with spiritual tension. Aiel glanced at the Shining One. “Go on, Aiel” said the Spirit-in-Light “the Dark thing is powerless to interfere while I hold it back.” “Marla” Aiel said gently. The girl was standing very still where Aila had pulled out of her danger, and tears were rolling down her face. “Marla” he said again “What is it?” “Aiel – oh, Aiel – is that my father? That foul Darkness fathered me?” “The man Lak fathered you.” he told her. “The thing that has taken his shape is the thing that possessed Lak while he was alive.” “And claims me now!” she gasped. “Aiel – has it any claim on me?” “On your body, none” he answered her “On your soul and spirit, only what you permit. If you reject it utterly, it has no right.” “I do!” she said, vehemently. “Oh, I do reject it, Aiel, in the Name of Light! I would not house that – that filth!” and she shuddered again. “Come, then” he told her, “Let us finish what we have set out to do.”

It was a night of terror and wonder, of pain and joy, of struggles and victories. It seemed that there were different kinds of Darkness dormant in Marla, and each manifested itself differently as they fought to free Marla from it. Once she went completely stiff for minutes on end, so that afterwards Aila had to massage her aching muscles. There were bouts of terrible screaming and groaning. There were cramps which racked the girl with agony till Aila could scarcely bear to see it, and once a horrible sickness, which filled the large bowl with yellow bile, yet moments later it had vanished. Aila stared at the empty bowl in bewilderment. But then nothing was what it seemed on this strange and terrible night. She was very glad of Arenel, of the Thought-without-Words, to help her through the times of fear or anxiety over Marla. Constantly the young Healer monitored her friend’s body, heart and breathing, and strength. Marla had never been strong, but Aila was amazed at how well the girl was standing up to her ordeal. Arenel was keeping a close eye on the Lord of Darkness, still locked in silent, unmoving conflict with the Shining One. He had somehow expected that the Darkness expelled from Marla would attach itself to ‘Lak’ and strengthen him, but it seemed rather that the Dark one was diminished by each Darkness that Marla rejected. Once more Aiel had set his Perception on Marla, and the silent struggle began. Arenel saw the Lord of Darkness begin to waver, lose Lak’s outlines, shudder to a dark smoke, and suddenly, totally vanish. At the same time Marla raised both hands to her head, gave a long sigh, and slid to the floor, falling in a heap across the cushions at Aila’s feet. Aila gave a little cry and dropped to her knees beside Marla, cradling her friend’s head in her lap. Aiel said, with a kind of weary triumph, “Have no fear, Aila. It is finished now. Marla is free of Darkness.” “oh, praise Light!” Arenel exclaimed, and Aila wept for joy.

The Shining One advised “Let her rest for a little, then take her to the Dancers. It is near dawn.” “Oh, Shining One, thank you!” Aila said ” For helping Marla, and for saving me from the Lord of Darkness.” “Our thanks indeed” Aiel added. “We are more than grateful, Shining One.” The Spirit-in-Light said “It is not the first time we have fought this foe together, Lightstone-Bearer.” Aiel stared. “Was it you who snatched my Perception from Lak’s grasp, that time on the mountainside?” he asked in wonderment. “Yes, and guarded Arentha’s spirit on the Meeting Place.” the Shining One replied. “Light sends us to the aid of Light’s Children, Aiel, and one day we shall rejoice together as one in the Joyous Place.” The bright being moved from one of them to another, touching them swiftly, softly, yet to each that almost insubstantial touch gave new strength. Last of all the Shining One leaned over Marla where she lay, exhausted, in Aila’s lap, and Marla he did not touch, but kissed lightly on the brow. “Rest now, Light’s beloved” said the Spirit-in-Light ” and wake in Light.” Aila was deeply touched by the love with which the Shining One had done this, and was sorrowful when he said that he must go back. Still, she thought, how hard it must have been to leave the Joyous Place and the Presence of Light! When the Shining One had gone, the Prayer Room seemed strangely dark by comparison. Aiel said “Arenel, go and tell the others to make ready to go up to the Meeting Place. Aila, will Marla be strong enough?” “She is very tired, yet her bodily signs seem so much stronger, Father. I have never seen such a thing before. Surely the Shining One has strengthened her, but it may be that the Darkness in her, though dormant, was feeding on her own strength, and she is in better health now it is gone.” Aiel came and knelt beside her, laying a hand in quiet blessing on Marla’s brow. Arenel smiled, and turned to carry out Aiel’s message, but his father checked him with a word “Arenel…Aila…my dears…” He could not say what he wanted but his Perception flowed into theirs, telling them, as his lips could not, how proud he was of them and their part in the night’s doings, of their love for and service to Light, and how he loved them. Then he sent Arenel on his way again, and helped Aila by fetching cool water and cloths for her to bathe Marla’s face.

Arenel went to the room where Zohra had been waiting and praying through the night. As he entered the room, she looked up, her face lit, and she ran to him. “Arenel! Is it over – is Marla free?” “Yes” he told her triumphantly “it is over, and she is free of Darkness, Zohra. There is only the Dancers’ part to be done, now.” But she was looking at him with concern. “Oh, Arenel, was it so dreadful?” she asked. “You look – I do not know how you look! As though you had been in some fearful battle!” She had laid her hand on his arm, and he wished – how he wished – that he could have begged her to hold him, for now that the need to be strong and courageous was past, he was beginning to realise the fearsome things that had happened in the night. But he contained himself, and said quietly “Yes, it was dreadful. We were fighting a terrible Darkness. But oh, the Shining One, Zohra! I wish you could have seen – and all the terror was worthwhile in the end, for Marla was freed. But I cannot tell you, Zohra…” “I know.” she said gently, and took hold of his hand, as if to comfort him. “We must find the others” he told her ” for we must be ready to go up to the Meeting Place as soon as Aila says Marla is able.” Together they went to find the Swordsmen at their posts, to receive the same anxious enquiries from them, which Arenel answered reassuringly but truthfully. Yes, there had been dreadful battles, but the Darkness was defeated, with the Shining One’s aid, none of them were harmed – though perhaps shaken-and Marla was free of Darkness, only needing the Dancers’ contribution, now, to free her of the taint of Ma’al. His words were greeted with joy, and if he had not known his cousin better, Arenel would have thought he saw Mellin wipe away a surreptitious tear.

In the Prayer Room, Marla stirred, sighed, and opened her eyes, looking up at Aila, who supported her, and Aiel, who had come to lean over her at her first movement. “Aiel?” she said, and he smiled. “It is over, child” he told her “The worst of it is over, now. The Darkness has gone from you.” Marla gave a little sob, and reached for his hand, and pressed her lips to it. “Oh, Aiel, thank you, thank you!” she cried. “You have set me free!” “Not I, but Light.” he answered. “And that-that thing, that claimed to be my – my father? Has that gone too?” “The Shining One held it back, so it could not harm you” Aila explained “and when the last Darkness left you, the Lord of Darkness vanished too.” “And the Shining One?” Marla asked wistfully.”I wish I could thank the Shining One.” “He has returned to the Joyous Place, to the Presence of Light” Aiel said “but be sure he knows of your gratitude and love, Marla.” He cupped her face in his hands, then, and set his Perception on her, and though Aila did not know what he imparted to Marla – for that would have been Trespass – she saw the other girl’s face grow calm and peaceful. When Aiel released Marla from his Perception, he said “Arenel has gone to tell the others. It is dawn, Marla, and time to go to the Dancers.” “I am ready” she said, and smiled. It is a fair climb up to the Meeting Place” Aiel said.”Do you feel strong enough, Marla? I could summon a Dancer…” “I will walk.” she said, firmly. “I will go on my own feet, Aiel. It will be well with me – will it not, Aila?” Aila knew, from the way Marla said it, that it was agreement, not a Healer’s advice, that her friend wanted. She did not think, though, that the climb would harm Marla, and answered “Yes, I believe it will, Marla.”

Arenel had gathered all the others in the Great Hall of the Gatehouse, ready to start out for the Meeting Place. Lady Benika and Tor-Harat were there too. As the three of them came into the midst of the group, Aila was aware of the undercurrents of emotion, joy, wonder, concern for Marla. Aiel raised his voice above the murmurs of enquiry, explaining briefly what had happened, that Marla was freed of the Darkness within her and now needed only the Dancers’ help to complete her Changing. Aila caught Mellin’s gaze for a moment, her Perception swiftly touching him, feeling how he still feared for Marla, offering comfort and reassurance, all in the span of a few seconds. As Aiel turned to lead them out of the Gatehouse door, Aila found Janir at her side, his sideways glance at her full of love and concern. He murmured her name, questioningly, and his hand brushed hers. “It is well with me” she whispered back, and for answer he gave her hand a quick squeeze. The expectant group walked quickly through the Gatehouse Gardens, which seemed fresh and lovely at this dawn hour. Tor-Harat, who had come with them this far, swung the great gate open for them and wished them ‘Go in Light!” as they started up the Dancers’ Path. When they reached the Meeting Place they saw that the bare, windswept rocky shelf, lit by the pink and golden slanting rays of sunrise, was still and empty. After a moment, though, the air began to shimmer as more and more of the Dancers appeared, until a circle of them hovered on the Meeting Place, waiting. The three Swordsmen stayed grouped together at the top of the narrow path, guarding the way onto the Meeting Place, while the rest of the party, Priests and maidens, moved towards the waiting circle of Dancers. Marla’s face was quiet and still, as though the peace she had received in the Prayer Room stayed with her.

One of the towering blue-green Dancers drifted over to meet them. Its thought echoed in all their minds as it welcomed them, then greeted Marla. “Welcome, Marla, Child of Darkness, Child of Light, now no longer a child of Darkness but wholly Light’s child! Are you ready?” “I am ready.” Marla assured the Dancer, steadily. And then, to Aiel and Aila’s surprise, and Arenel’s great concern, the Dancer ‘said’ “And you, Zohra, child of the West? Are you ready to help us?” Zohra, though obviously startled, quickly answered “Dancer, if there is anything for me to do to help Marla, I am ready.” “Then wait for our summons” the Dancer told her “Marla, come.” Marla obeyed, following the light-being as it moved back towards the others. She reached the circle of Dancers, entered it, and it closed round her. Marla stood in the midst of the tall flames, looking very small and alone. There was total silence. Arenel asked Aiel, in a hurried undertone “What are they doing? And why do they need Zohra?” Aiel shook his head, bewildered. “I do not know. As to what they are doing – maybe they need to gather strength for the Changing.” They had not noticed Zohra’s rapt expression, but now all their attention switched to her as she said, in a reverently hushed voice, “Oh no, it is not that. They are singing. Do you not hear it?” Aiel, astonished, yet finally understanding why Zohra was the ‘melody’ of Marla’s Way, why the Dancers needed her help, asked “Zohra-are you saying that you hear the Dancers’ Song?” “Why, yes” she answered, as though it were nothing remarkable at all. “Listen, it is so beautiful! Do you not hear it also? Your Perceptions…” The Westerner broke off, seeing the expressions of amazement and awe on her friends’ faces, and drew a long, soft breath. “Ohhh! Am I the only one who hears it?” “Child of the West, you are truly blessed of Light!” Aiel told her. “For never in all the times and places of Li’is has one been known that heard the Dancers’ Song!” “What are they singing? How will it help Marla?” Aila asked. “I hear only what they sing in Li’is.” Zohra explained. “Part of the Song they sing in Ma’al, and part in the dark between the stars, and that I cannot hear. They are singing her out of Ma’al and into Li’is, but also they are singing Ma’al out of her and Li’is into her. Ah!” she gave a sudden exclamation. “They are calling to me now, in the Song. I must go.” “Why?” Arenel asked, anxious for her. “They need me to help them to-to tune Marla, as it were, to the life of Li’is, to the rhythm of its flesh and blood. She cannot hear their Song, and she needs to hear it herself to make the Change. I can do that – oh, I cannot explain it! I must go to them!”

The circle of Dancers had parted, leaving a space large enough for Zohra to enter. As they watched, Marla fell to her knees, wrapping her arms about herself as if in pain, bowing over. Zohra walked steadily into the circle, to stand beside Marla. As the circle closed round the two girls again, they saw Zohra raise her head and arms. her mouth opened wide, and they heard her begin to sing. It was a high, pure, perfect note that seemed to strike a deep, poignant chord in the very being of each listener. As Zohra sang, each note seemed keyed to some vital part of them. Aila understood, with sudden clarity, that Zohra was singing the Dancers’ Song with them, as closely as human voice might come to that celestial music. Aiel, though, was watching with foreboding. It seemed that the Darkness that had coveted Marla was still fighting against her. There was nothing spectacular to see, but to Aiel, who had seen the Dancers under attack from the unholy rhythms of the Black Piper’s music, the signs of stress in the light-beings were there, unmistakeably. There came one moment in particular, when the sky overhead began to darken ominously, as if with the onset of a storm, and some of the Dancers were swaying as if buffeted by some unsensed cosmic wind, that made Aiel draw out the Lightstone, letting it lie gleaming on his breast, and move towards the circle of Dancers, which opened to admit him. Light poured out of the Lightstone, enveloping Aiel and Zohra, and forming a shield around Marla. They heard Aiel’s voice lift loud and deep in the awesome cadences of the unknown tongue they head heard now twice before, a strange counterpoint to Zohra’s singing. Aila clutched her brother’s hand and waited, feeling his fingers tighten on hers as though he, too, needed comfort. Suddenly Marla, in the midst of the circle, raised her bowed head and gave a great, terrible, triumphant cry that rang across the Meeting Place. Aila saw Mellin spin towards the sound and flung out her Perception to catch her cousin’s gaze, aware of his distress and able, even at a distance, to calm his fear. Then she turned back to the scene before her. Marla had slid to the ground, Aiel knelt by her, laying the Lightstone to her brow, and now its light embraced Marla. “Oh Arenel, Light accepts her!” Aila breathed. “Aye, but could her flesh stand the Changing?” her brother worried. “Is she alive or dead, Aila?”

That question was answered in another moment; they saw Aiel and Zohra bend to help the girl; the light withdrew into the Lightstone and they lifted her to her feet. They saw Zohra embrace Marla, saw Aiel lean to speak to her, and then the circle of Dancers broke open again, and Aiel took Marla’s hand and led her out towards them, with a ceremonial air, as if he brought a bride to her wedding. “Behold!” the Lightstone-Bearer called joyfully “Marla of Li’is, Child of Light!” “Oh!” Aila cried. “Look at Marla! Look at her!” For Marla’s Changing had extended beyond soul and spirit, she had been Changed outwardly too. Her silver-pale hair was now honey-blonde, her eyes were still green, but it was a soft green, with golden flecks instead of the eerie silver streaks. Her skin now had a healthy glow, her lips were softly rosy. She was beautiful still, but in a totally different way. Her cold, pale beauty had grown warm and alive – like a lovely stone statue come suddenly to life, thought Aila. She was Changed , and the Changing was total, yet she was Marla still, but, as Aiel had said, now Marla of Li’is. Now the prospect of any danger was over, the Swordsmen left their posts- indeed they would have been unable to keep away from such a miracle. As for Mellin, Aila suspected that only iron control kept him from running the intervening space and sweeping Marla into his arms.

They all crowded round Marla to rejoice and congratulate, until a Dancer eddied across to them to offer advice and words of caution. “The Changing has used much of Marla’s human strength, though we have fed her with ours as far as possible. Take her back now, and let her rest.” “But there is no danger to her?” Aila asked, as Healer to the group. “None. The Changing has been perfectly accomplished in the Will of Light. Though the maiden may seem a little confused later, but that will be only tiredness, nothing more, so have no fear for her. But have an eye to the Westerner, for we have never before found one of the human kind who could hear our music, and we do not know how it may affect her.” Marla said quietly – and her soft, Eastern-accented voice seemed the only thing unchanged about her – “Dancer, thank you, you and all your kind, for what you have done for me this day! I do not have words to thank you enough.” “Give the praise to Light” the light-being told her. “As for the Dancers, it was our joy and privilege to play our part in helping you attain Light, Marla – true Child of Light.”

Aila, acting again as the group’s Healer, superintended the arrangements for their return to the Gatehouse, having the Dancers’ advice in mind. Marla, though joyful and triumphant, was physically exhausted, and Aila, thinking of Mellin’s welfare too, asked him to support Marla down the Dancers’ Path and, at need, to carry her through the Gardens. This meant her cousin would be able to be close to Marla, perhaps to hold her in his arms, and see for himself that all was well with the girl, without the others suspecting his secret love for her. All unknowing of Arenel’s feelings for Zohra, she gladdened her brother too by asking him to go with the Westerner. “You have spent time with her in her own place, and know her better than any of us.” Aila explained quietly to him. “You will see first, Arenel, if she acts in a way that is unusual for her. The Dancers themselves said they did not know how their Song might have affected her.” Since Lin had elected to go ahead just in case of any danger and Aiel, with the Lightstone, to bring up the rear, this left Aila to walk with Janir. The tension of all that had happened, and the lack of sleep, were catching up with her now, and she felt the need of his beloved presence. They could speak no words of love to each other, but they could exchange secret, loving glances – and what was more natural than for Janir to take her hand to help her down the rough path?

Arenel, descending the path with Zohra, was concerned at how subdued she seemed – though that might be the wakeful night. He asked her gently “Zohra, are you tired?” “Tired?” she looked at him with abstracted eyes. “You seem so quiet.” he explained, and she said “Oh, I was listening to the Dancers’ Song.” “Do you still hear it?” he asked, surprised, and she smiled and said “Only in here” and touched her fingers to her brow. Then, with sudden intense determination, she went on “Oh, but I must hear it again, Arenel! It was so beautiful, so wonderful – the most beautiful music I have ever heard!” “But what if Light meant you to hear the Dancers’ Song only once?” Arenel enquired. “Oh no, I cannot believe that!” Zohra exclaimed, so fiercely that he fell silent, fearing to quarrel with her. They reached the mountain’s foot and the wrought metal gates, and went back through the Gardens, now sunlit and serene, and it seemed to them that the very birds were singing with joy for Marla. They were greeted with more joy when they reached the Gatehouse and gathered in the Great Hall to tell their story. Tor-Harat was twice amazed, first at the change in Marla, but more so, because it was so unexpected, at Zohra’s ability to hear the Dancers’ Song. “Not even any of the Gatekeepers has heard it” he told her. “Light has blessed you with a wondrous gift, child of the West!” At last, though, their exuberance began to diminish, and Lady Benika embraced Marla warmly, and said it was all wonderful, but they must take the Dancers’ advice, and the child must have some rest now, and it would not come amiss to the rest of them, either.


Chapter 9

When she woke, Aila could not remember what had happened, for a moment. Then she felt the tenderness of her throat, and her eyes flew open as memory returned. As she looked up, she found her father there, his eyes holding hers, his Perception meshing with hers to help her through the first shuddering moments of dreadful recollection. Once that was over, and his Perception released hers, she saw that Arenel was standing at Aiel’s shoulder, and behind them the Healer was smiling gently at her. “Oh, Aila!” exclaimed her brother, and bent to embrace her, his Perception emitting concern. “How is it with you, dear one?” Aila’s hand went to her bruised throat. “It- aches” she said, finding her voice sounding husky and strange even to herself. “But the worst thing was the evil in them. That man was enjoying the thought of – of killing me! It was horrible!” “Such are the ways of Darkness.” Aiel said heavily. “Marla!” Aila exclaimed , remembering. “Oh, Father, is she safe? She did not try to use her Dark power to save me?” “She did not use it” Aiel assured her.” She obeyed you. She has been very unhappy, but now she is certain that she did what was right, and it will be well with you, she is comforted. And Zohra too ” he continued, forestalling her next question, “is better this morning. Her valiant spirit, and the Lightstone, helped her,” “Oh – Janir!” she cried, though it hurt her throat, for she had a sudden memory. “I had forgotten – Janir was fighting, and I think he was hurt.” “Janir’s wound was nothing, just a cut.” Aiel said. “But he has a worse hurt” Arenel commented.

“What?” asked Aila, alarmed for her beloved ‘cousin of a cousin’, “What ails Janir?” “He was forced to kill the Child of Night” Aiel told her, “and he is very unhappy. He refuses my Perception, and the Lightstone. He will not make his peace with Light.” “He would not accept my Perception, either.” Arenel added. “Oh, I do not believe that he does not wish to come to Light. But he feels guilty, unacceptable to Light, because of the man’s death.” “Besides that” Aiel said thoughtfully, “he was very anxious for you, Aila. Of course we all were, but Janir saw at close hand what was done to you, and it has doubled his burden – Aila, do you feel well enough to see Janir? If he sees that you are recovering, it may ease him.” “And maybe” Arenel suggested, “to you, who have Perception but are not of the Priesthood, he may feel able to unburden himself, as he cannot to us.” “Oh,I do not know that Aila is well enough for that” their father frowned, but Aila said quickly, “Oh yes, Father! It will be well with me. And if I can help Janir – you know he was so kind to me, when I was missing Arenel. While he was away, Janir was like a brother to me in his place. Please let me help him.” She could not add , as she did secretly to herself, the thought well-guarded to escape her father’s and brother’s Perceptions “And I love him!” “Do you think it is wise?” Aiel appealed to the Healer, who smiled, and said, “I think it is. Janir needs reassurance, and Aila will be unhappy now if she cannot help her friend. Besides, she is a Healer herself, and should know what she can bear.” Aila smiled back at him, grateful for an ally. “Very well” Aiel said “I will find Janir and send him to you, Aila.” When her father and brother had gone, the Healer gave her a strengthening draught, and, after a quick examination, allowed her to rise from her couch and sit in a chair, wrapped in a warm robe. Then, gently warning her not to overtax herself, he discreetly left the Healing Place.

Shortly afterwards, Aila heard a tap at the door, and called out “Janir? Come in.” When the young Swordsman entered the room, Aila felt a shock of concern. He looked so haggard and wretched, his face pale, with dark smudges under the eyes as if he had not slept at all, clothes and hair rumpled, shoulders slumped. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it for a moment, staring at her. “Aila,” he said, in a low voice that was quite unlike his normal tone, “is it well with you?” “It will be.” she assured him, then, holding out her hands to him, said “But, my dear, it is not well with you! What ails you, Janir?” She did not tell him what Aiel had said. Let the Swordsman find his own words to explain his predicament – hopefully the telling would ease him .Almost unwillingly, it seemed, Janir came towards her, and she rose to meet him, but he did not take her extended hands.. He kept his head and eyes bowed, not looking at her, as he told her “Aila- oh, Aila, I was so afraid for you – I thought, when I found you, that you were dead. And I – I slew the Child of Night who attacked you. I had to, to protect you, but oh, it is so hard, to know I have taken a man’s life and sent his spirit into Darkness forever! But he would have killed you….” His voice rose as he spoke, and suddenly his head came up, and he was staring at her again, with tears in his eyes. Then he reached out, not for her hands, but to hold her, to hug her tightly to him, as he exclaimed “Oh, my love, my love, if you had died…” His voice cracked on the last word, and he leaned his face into the curve of her neck and shoulder, and wept. Aila was stunned, by the force of his emotions, and his words of love. She wrapped her arms around him and felt his body shake under her hands, as his near-unbearable feelings burst out in violent tears.

Waiting till his first rush of weeping subsided, Aila asked gently “Janir, what is it keeps you from Light? Aiel my father told me you refused his Perception, and the Lightstone. But your healing is in Light.” His answer came, muffled by her hair, in which his face was still hidden. “I-I cannot face Light – not yet, Aila. I do not understand what I have done. I feel guilt and fear. I think I did not mean to kill, but maybe in my heart I did, and did not know it. I love you so, and he had tried to kill you- I thought he had! What if in my secret heart I wanted revenge for that? How could I come to Light?” “Janir” she said, still softly, but firmly, “You must tell me exactly what happened.” He looked at her then, and “Arenel was choking too.” he said. “I realised it was the Thought-without-Words, and I knew they were trying to kill you.I rode for the place like – like a mad thing, Aila, I was so afraid I would find you dead! I saw him astride you, strangling you, and I threw myself at him and pulled him off you. I thought he was stunned, but he came at me with sword and dagger. I was fighting to keep him from you, and disarm him. I swear I did not mean to kill him, but he twisted suddenly,, trying to get under my guard, and the stroke I had aimed only to wound went right through his body.” His voice was shaking with the memory as he added “There was nothing to be done, Aila, it was so quick – he was dead even before I could offer the Choice of Light!” “There!” she told him “Listen to your own words, Janir, you never meant to kill the man. And it was self-defence, not revenge.” He looked at her,still a little doubtful. “Was it?” “Yes it was.” she told him firmly. “You felt and acted only as a Swordsman, Janir. I do not believe that your – your feelings for me had anything to do with the man’s death.”

He started at her words, then flushed and said uncomfortably “Oh, what have I said? I never meant you to know that I loved you – oh, Aila, forgive me! I am dishonoured…” “But why?” she broke in, unhappily. Could it be possible that he was promised to another, despite Mellin’s confident assurances? “Janir, you are not betrothed already? For I love you too, my heart.” “No, I am not betrothed” he answered, his look now bewildered,”But how can you love me, Aila? Are you not Mellin’s love?” “Mellin?” It was her turn to be puzzled. “Janir, he is my dear cousin, dear as a brother, and we love each other like brother and sister. But he is not my love! His heart is given, but not to me…” and she stopped, realising that she had come close to betraying Mellin’s secret. “Oh, Aila!” Janir murmured. “But I thought – you were always so close, so affectionate, you two, and I did not understand that was how it was with you. I was sure you would be betrothed, one day. And I could not set out to steal the love that belonged to my kinsman and Sword-Brother.” “No, you would not” she said, understanding. “Not my honourable Janir.” “It was such joy, and such pain” he went on ” to be with you all these weeks,knowing I would love you all my life, yet you would never know it. And to see you look so lovely at Shala’s wedding – oh, I could not help but imagine that one day I might have stood with you before the Crucible if things had been different, and it hurt me so!” “I felt it!” she exclaimed.”I did not mean to Trespass, my heart, but I could not help but Perceive your pain, though I thought you were sad to lose Shala. But – but you speak as though you have loved me so long, Janir.” “I have!” he answered “Oh Aila, Aila, do you know how long? Since I was old enough to know what love is, I think I have been in love with you.” “And never said, because you thought I loved Mellin?” she asked, gently. “How could I?” he asked in reply, simply. And she knew it had been that simple – and that painful – for him, because he was a Swordsman, and a man of honour, and it had been impossible, as he had said, for him to think of stealing the love he believed was Mellin’s . And she loved him the more for it. “Oh, I am sorry to have caused you such pain! But it is you I love, Janir” she told him, “more than anything save Light.”

Janir gave a little laugh of delight “I never thought to hear those words from you, Aila! Oh, my heart, I have wasted so much time. But this recompenses me for all.” “Janir” she said “If I had known – but you have scarcely seen me, these last few years. How is it that you came to love me – and when?” “The last time we were all at the Fortress together. You were staying with Aunt Krystha, learning the last of your Healing skills, and Mellin had finished his Sword-Training and was to take his oath to the Fortress Watch. Arenel and I had come to see him do it. Do you remember? I always was fond of you, Aila, even when we were children, but that was when I fell in love with you.” “So long ago?” she said, wonderingly “And you have been so constant in your love, not even seeing me?Oh, Janir!” “You may not have seen me, Aila, but I have seen you” he told her, reaching out for her again, She came gladly into his arms, as he went on “You would be surprised how many messages pass between the Western and Mountain Fortresses, and how many times I found means to make myself the messenger. And always my mother or sister would have some errand in the City for me, and I found ways to see you. Oh, you did not notice me, but I was there.” Aila was moved to the heart by the picture of unspoken devotion to her that his words conjured up. “Janir, I am ashamed!” she said “I have loved you such a little while, and you have loved me so long. And yet perhaps if I had known of your love, I might not have valued it then as I do now.” “Little time or long does not matter to me now, if you really love me.” he answered her, smiling. “I do” she assured him. “Love me too, Janir, but never more than Light, the source of all love. Is it not time to make your peace with Light, my heart?” “Yes.” he answered, softly. “Aila, I have never been distanced from Light before, and it is a pain and a burden to me. But my love for you was another reason I could not surrender to Aiel’s Perception – I was so full of love and fear for you, he would have known it at once, if he had Perceived me.” “Come now,” she said “make your peace with Light, Janir.”

He nodded, and offered his eyes to her Perception. It was an easy thing to guide Janir into making his peace with Light, for he was ready and eager for it already, aching inwardly at the separation. Now she felt Light free him from his fear and self-appointed guilt, and felt, too how, as he had said, his deep feelings for her ran through his thought like a thread in the weaving. At last he found his peace in Light, and she felt the joy break through in him. Aila felt joy for him flood through her too, as she withdrew her Perception and spoke the words of assurance to him. His face was radiant as he said exultantly “Oh, Aila, Light is merciful! This morning I was so unhappy, for I had come close to losing the two things I love best – Light’s Presence, and you. But now I have Light’s forgiveness and your love, and I think I am happier than any man has right to be!” He cupped her face in his hands and gazed into her eyes as intently as if he, not she, were Perception-gifted. She closed her eyes under that bright gaze, and he bent and kissed her. “Aila, my Gift-of-Light” he said, after a while, “I know that for now, only Marla’s Way matters. All else, our love too, must come second to that, and we must put our feelings aside for a while. Yet I have loved you and dreamed of you so long, I am impatient. Is it too soon to ask you now to be my Lady?” Aila thought of the years of love and longing he had confessed to her, so poorly repaid with scant glimpses of her here and there, and her own innocent obliviousness of his devotion, now so amply proved to her. She was sure of her own feelings, and did not want to make him wait, unrewarded, any longer. She responded, “Janir, my love, how can it be too soon, when you have loved me so long and constantly? I will gladly be your Lady, if Aiel my father agrees – and I think he knows you, as I do, for a man of the deepest honour. He will not refuse.” “Then we are betrothed!” he exclaimed, then, lighthearted with love and joy, he teased her “But you still have not told me when you learned to love me.”

“I scarcely know!” she answered truthfully. “You were always so kind to me, and such a comfort – and I know that is your nature, if you loved me or not -that I must have grown into it so gradually, I did not know myself. Then, that evening Zohra sang to us at the Last Faring House – do you remember?” He nodded, and she went on “Her music was so powerful, so lovely, that I looked to see how it affected others, and at first I thought it was the music that made me feel so strange, when I looked at you.” “How, strange?” he asked.”I felt as though you were the most important thing in the world to me, and when you smiled at me, I felt my heart melt. Then I knew I loved you, and was astonished at myself!” “Yet you did not show it” he said, a trifle reproachfully. “I thought you only cared for me like a sister” she explained “and if you did not feel love for me too, you would feel sad that you could not return my love.” “Oh, Aila!” he laughed “What a tangle it has all been. But Light has resolved it for us, for as you said, all loves grow from Light’s greatest love.” “But I was so afraid you could not love me, when all the time you did!” she exclaimed. “And I was so sure you loved Mellin – I saw him embrace you-” “When we walked by the little river?” Aila asked, and when he agreed, explained “I was comforting Mellin, Janir. He has a burden – a secret sorrow – that is not mine to tell. Like you, he would not go to my father or Arenel, lest they Perceive it, but he shared it with me. That is all.” “Poor Mellin!” Janir said. “I do not ask his secret, Aila. But if my Sword-Brother is ever in need of my help in this thing, tell me. And do not fear I shall be jealous of your affection for Mellin, my heart. He looked at her with tenderness and said softly. “Aila, Light is merciful. I have been so blessed.”

Someone knocked at the door of the Healing Place. They quickly drew apart, and Janir went to open the door. Aiel was standing there, and he cast a quick glance at Janir’s face and seemed pleased with what he saw. “You see, Janir?” he said, smiling at the Swordsman “I told you it would be well with Aila now.” “It is well with Janir, too” his daughter told him. “He has made his peace with Light, Father.” “I know” the Lightstone-Bearer said.”I can see it in his face.” He drew out the Lightstone and said “Come, Janir.” Unhesitatingly now, Janir came and stood before Aiel while the Priest held out the Lightstone to him. It touched Janir’s brow, and the light poured out of it, spilling over Janir, blessing him. When the Light withdrew it left its glow in Janir’s eyes, and Aila was glad for him. There was the moment’s pause that always seemed to come after the Lightstone had been used, while each mused inwardly on Light. Then Aila asked “Father, where did you go, last night?” “I went to meet a Dancer.” Aiel said. “You know that I felt only they would know how to turn Marla to Light?” “Yes. But how – you could not have gone to the Meeting Place?” “The Dancers are not confined to the Meeting Place” Aiel reminded her”though they rarely leave it. I had sent the Thought-without-Words to Tor-Harat, and he sent back word that a Dancer would meet me – at a certain place – to tell me what we must do.” Janir asked “Then it can be done? Marla can attain Light? Praise Light!” Aiel sighed. “Yes, she can attain Light, but it will be painful and dangerous – for her, for me, perhaps for all of us.” “But you will do it, Father?” Aila asked. Aiel smiled. “Of course!” He paused, then said, “I have been promised aid – and I bear the Lightstone. I know its power to defeat Darkness.”

As they spoke he had been idly playing with a folded garment that hung over his arm. Now he held it out to his daughter. “Here is a fresh gown, Aila. Do you feel well enough to join us?” “Oh yes!” Aila cried”I must be there when you tell Marla! Wait for me, Father.” She slipped into one of the curtained alcoves to change, and could hear Aiel and Janir chatting as they waited for her, though not what they said. She felt remarkably well, despite her ordeal. Light had strengthened her – no doubt through Aiel and the Lightstone – and the joy of Janir’s love for her had swept away the remembered terror of the previous night. Thinking of Janir, Aila wondered, for a brief moment, if she had been rash to agree so soon to be his Lady. Then she smiled to herself. She was quite sure of her own feelings, and his had surely been tested over the years and remained true. She knew she had made a wise choice. Rejoining her father and Janir she found the Healer there too, and submitted quietly to his quick examination. “You were right, my Brother-in-Light” the other Priest told Aiel.”Her spirit is strong in Light.” To Aila he said “You have recovered well. You do not need me to tell you to be careful of yourself for a while. But remember that a Healer does not as easily see the weakness in themselves as in another.” “I have good friends around me who will see, if I do not” Aila told him, holding out a hand each to Aiel and Janir. Her father took her hand for a moment in an affectionate squeeze, then released it, but Janir clasped the hand he held tightly, as if he almost feared that Aila would be lost to him again.”We will go to Marla now.” Aiel said. Janir freed Aila’s hand, and they followed him out of the Healing Place.

Marla was waiting with the others in the Quiet Room. When she saw Aila she flew to embrace her friend, sobbing out “Aila! Oh Aila, I am sorry!” “Marla, dear, hush!” Aila implored her “There is nothing to be sorry for – it was not your doing!” Aila was moved by the way in which they all showed their love for her and their relief that she had recovered from her ordeal. Her brother hugged her, then Zohra embraced her and so did Lin. Mellin not only hugged his cousin, but placed a quick,unexpected kiss on her brow. Aila was touched; Mellin was seldom so demonstrative, and the gesture showed the depth of his brotherly concern for her. Remembering what Janir had said about her closeness to Mellin, she glanced at him, and received a warm, slightly mischievous smile, as if he said “No, I am not jealous, for I know you are mine.” Now Aiel began to explain to them where he had been the previous day. Marla’s whole body was taut with attention as she listened to his words. “The Dancer has told me what must be done. But Marla, it is difficult, and dangerous. The Darkness must be cast from you, body and soul, and your spirit fully awakened to Light.” “How?” Marla breathed the question with eager intensity. “When we come to the Gatehouse, we are to take you to the Prayer Room and separate the Darkness from the seed of Light in you. We must drive out your Dark powers, Marla. Not until we are there will I be told exactly what to do. But only those of us Perception-gifted may be there, and the Lightstone, and …” he paused, and Aila asked excitedly “Will the Dancers help us, Father?” “Not the Dancers, no. They will help us later, with the second part of the Changing, but in this,” and there was a kind of awe in his voice as he went on “they have said that this is not their task, it is beyond their powers. But they said also that “they have sung Marla’s Song in the Courts of Light, between the stars and the Joyous Place” and they were promised aid for her. When the time comes, they will be allowed to summon a Spirit-in-Light to help us.” “A Spirit-in-Light? A Shining One?” Lin exclaimed. “So the Dancer said.” Aiel answered.

Marla repeated, in a trembling voice “A Shining One? One of Light’s great servants will be sent to help me ?” “Yes.” Aiel said. “That is how much Light values you, Marla.” “Oh, Aiel!” she exclaimed, and then for a little while she was gone somewhere inside herself, hugging to herself the precious promise that was proof of Light’s love for her, with a quiet, tender smile on her face. “How beautiful she looks” Aila thought, and noticed Mellin watching Marla too, and knew he was thinking the same thing. When Marla looked at Aiel again, and asked what the Shining One would do, he went on “It will be dangerous, Marla, for all the Darkness in you has been dormant, waiting to be woken and put to use by Si-Mara’s ‘ceremonies’ that would bring your spirit into union with a Dark Lord and set the Dark powers free. But they expected you to go willingly to that, not knowing that you bore the seed of Light in you too, and had determined to choose Light. Once we begin to drive out the Darkness from you, the Dark Lords may attempt to take control of you and regain what they have lost. Oh, they will be defeated, in the end -‘the weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness'” he quoted. “But it will be a battle – for your body, soul and spirit, Marla – and you must be ready for it.” “The Changing?” she asked. “That is what the Dancers called it. That will be the worst part, Marla. After that we must take you up to the Meeting Place, for the Dancers to do their part. They will attune your flesh to Light and to Li’is. You know how those who are born of the Darkness of Ma’al find themselves in the Light of Li’is as it were on sufferance. Our air, food, water, even our world itself are alien to them – to you. Have you ever been fully well in your life, Marla? Oh, your body has learned to overcome these things. As a child you were no doubt sickly, but as you grew you learned to live in Li’is more easily. But because you are born of Ma’al you will always be a little weak, a little tired – unless the Dancers change the rhythm of your flesh.”

“The rhythm of my flesh? I do not understand that.” she said. “I do” said Zohra. “Oh, may I explain, Aiel?” When he nodded, she took the harp that went everywhere with her, and said, “Listen, Marla.” Deliberately she slightly loosened one or two strings. “See, now the harp is out of tune” she added, and played a simple tune. The wrong notes jangled, jarring on their ears. Then she retuned the harp and played again, the same tune, and now it was pure and clear. “Did you hear the difference, Marla? ” Zohra asked. “Your body is out of tune with Li’is and jars, like the first time I played. The Dancers will tune your flesh into harmony with Li’is, and then there will be no jarring, as my second playing was smooth and clean.” “Oh, now I see!” Marla exclaimed. “Thank you, Zohra.” Aiel also thanked Zohra for her explanation, then said, “It will take courage and determination, Marla, but those I know you have. Do not doubt that you shall attain Light.” “I do not doubt Light – or you, Aiel!” she replied. He smiled at her, then said “So much has happened, I think it is as well that we attend to everyday things, for a while. I am told that food is served all day in the Eating House, so if you have not breakfasted, you had best go and do so.” Thus dismissed, they began drifting away, either to eat or to attend to other routine tasks. Zohra, though, lingered, packing away her harp, and Arenel, having a vague Perception of something troubling the Westerner, hung back too, and asked “Zohra, are you sure that you have recovered from last night?” For all her courage and spirit, he was thinking, it had still been a frightening experience. She answered “Yes, it is well with me, Arenel.” But he still sensed that faint aura of unhappiness, and said gently “Are you sure, Zohra? I do not mean to Trespass, but I feel that you are troubled.” She looked at him, and said “You do not Trespass, Arenel, and I thank you for your concern.” She hesitated, then, and he asked “What is it, Zohra?” “I am wondering” the Westerner replied, twisting her long slender fingers together as she spoke, “what it is that Light requires of me on this Way of Marla’s? Oh, I do not doubt your father, Arenel” she added hastily, looking up at him through the half-veil of dark hair that fell across her face. “I know that what he said was true, that I do belong on Marla’s Way. Yet I feel so useless! Aila is a Healer – and has Perception too – and you are a Priest, and Lin, Mellin and Janir, Swordsmen. And Aiel – he is the Lightstone-Bearer. But what am I, Arenel? An outlander, and a maiden, with a gift for music that seems out of place here.” She lifted her head and looked at him with serious dark eyes. “Oh, Arenel, I so much want to help Marla, but what can I do?”

“Zohra” Arenel said, reaching out to untangle those tightly twined fingers, ” You have been of help. Already your music has comforted and refreshed us on our journey. And I know it eases Marla.” He paused, looking at her, thinking how deceptively simple was her outward seeming, yet how complex the Westerner really was. ‘She is shy’ he thought ‘but untamed, like a wild thing. She is quiet, but brave as any Swordsman. She speaks as though she were of no account, yet she knows the value of her musical gift. And she is delicate to look at, yet she is strong and rooted in good soil.’ Her fingers felt cold, and he warmed them in his hands as he continued “You know that in Light we are all one, man and woman alike. There is no such thing as an outlander among Light’s people. We all may serve Light, according to the gifting given us. Light does have a purpose in your being here, Zohra, and in your gift of music. We do not yet understand it, but we shall. And you must not call yourself useless, Your gift may not be Perception or Healing or sword-skill, but it does not mean Light cannot use you!” She smiled at him then, and answered “I am sorry, Arenel – I did not mean to question the Will of Light – let Light forgive me.” “It is forgiven” he assured her, and she went on softly, “Maybe it is just that I – that I feel lonely, and lost. Marla’s Way is so important, and I have tried not to be homesick, but I have never left the West before. I am used to the tents of the West, and the freedom of the grasslands, and the skies of the high Plateau – oh, it is my heart’s belonging-place, and the road that takes me away from the West comes hard to me, Arenel.” As Zohra finished speaking, to Arenel’s concern her smile waverd to a trembling of her lips, and tears welled in her eyes. “Zohra!” he exclaimed “We did not realise – why did you not say?” “It – seemed such a little thing, beside Marla’s terrible need” she answered, with a catch in her voice.”Nothing that hurts one of Light’s children is a little thing.” Arenel reassured her. Seeing her distress, he reached out to comfort her, letting her lean against him and cry quietly, speaking soothing words to her.

In the midst of this friendly concern for Zohra, though, Arenel was swept by a sudden and surprising access of tenderness for her, a feeling that actually slammed into him like a physical fist, causing him to gasp aloud with astonishment, though Zohra did not notice it. The feeling broke over him like a wave, leaving his thoughts tumbling in a surf of half-understood emotion and wholly unexpected longing. Arenel had never expected to fall desperately in love with any maiden; knowing his own practical, prosaic and adaptable nature, he had always accepted that love, when and if it came to him, would be a steady outgrowth of friendship, in which companionship and common interests would feature more than passion. To find himself now caught up in this powerful, almost painful love for Zohra, so unexpectedly and against all reason, brought him close to panic. Arenel tried to reason with himself, to believe that what he felt for Zohra was friendship and compassion, nothing more, ‘It is only that we have spent time together among her people, and she has grown to be like a sister to me’ he argued with himself, yet knew, even as he thought it, that what was in his heart for Zohra was nothing like the brotherly affection he had for Aila. And when Zohra had done with weeping, and raised her head from his shoulder to smile faintly at him and thank him for his kindness, he felt again that rush of tenderness and could no longer deny it. ‘I do love her’, he thought, with mingled delight and fear. Another thought, though, quickly sobered him. What chance was there that Zohra might return his love, or ever be his Lady? Bred among the valiant Westerners, she would surely wish to marry one of her own, or at least a Swordsman. Not a Priest, whose vows forbade him weapons. And if she were homesick now for the tents and grasslands of the West, how could she bear to leave them forever to live with him in the City? ‘It is impossible!’ Arenel thought unhappily, but he hid his own sadness and sent Zohra on her way with more words of encouragement.

Now that Aiel had told them what could be done for Marla, he knew they would all be eager to set off for the Gatehouse. However, speaking privately to Lin, he said “I believe we must delay our start for two more days.” “But why?” Lin asked. “Lin, tonight, and tomorrow night, are the nights of the last of the Spring Two-Moon Tides. We must keep Marla safe till they are over. You know that she said it was at the Two-Moon Tide that Si-Mara intended to carry out her Dark ‘ceremonies’. It was not by chance that the attempt on the maidens was made last night.” “But the Dark Ones could not have got them back to the City in time for that.” Lin objected. “The City, no – but the Dark Ruins, Lin…with Tamat acting on Si-Mara’s behalf…” Aiel broke off and shuddered, and Lin gasped “You think they meant to take the maidens to that awful place?” Aiel said, sombrely, “I do. And I am thankful to Light that they did not succeed, that by Light’s mercy Aila was able to alert Arenel and you Swordsmen, and you saved them. ” He sighed, then, and said “It has been hard to conceal from Aila’s Perception what might have happened to them, I had such thoughts of it.” Lin said “After what we experienced there on the Lightstone Way, no wonder in that, Aiel!” For a moment his gaze was distant, his mouth a little twisted, as if with bitter memory, but then he said “Light is merciful, Aiel, and the maidens are safe. And certainly, I see now why we must not set off till the Tides are over.” “Once we are past the Spring Tides, Marla is safe, for as you know, Lin, there will be no more till autumn, and even if Si-Mara succeeds in bringing the new Bloodstone into Li’is, without a Bloodstone-wielder she can do no harm with it. By the autumn ,Marla, by Light’s mercy, will have attained Light and be free of her Dark powers, and so useless to the Children of Night as the Bloodstone-wielder.” Lin said thoughtfully “Marla…she does this as much for Li’is as for herself, Aiel. She has said so often that she dreads being forced to wield the Bloodstone for the curse it would bring on Li’is, as much as she longs to attain Light for herself. She is very courageous.” “She is.” Aiel affirmed. “No wonder Light knew and loved her before ever she was born, and told of her Way in the Secret Word.” He paused, then said, “We will make no mention to the others of the Dark One’s intentions last night, only that to keep Marla safe we will not leave the Faring House till the Two-Moon Tides are over.” “Surely!” Lin agreed. Accordingly, when they gathered again, they explained the delay and the reason for it, and all agreed that it was a sensible precaution. “In any case” said practical Arenel “it will give the maidens more time to recover from their frightening experience.”

Aiel and Lin, being the only ones who had travelled from the Merchant Town to the Gatehouse, conferred together, trying to recall what they could of the journey. On the way to the Gatehouse on the Lightstone Way, they had been overshadowed by the urgency of reaching the Meeting Place before Lak could overcome the Dancers and bring down Darkness into Li’is. In addition, they had been bedevilled by the traps and enchantments which Lak had set. Returning, they had been relieved and triumphant with success, and more aware of their surroundings. Still, it was a long time past. Once they left the Merchant Town there were no more Faring Houses till they came to the Gatehouse itself. They would need to camp, or stay in the small villages that lay between. At least Aiel and Lin had some idea of their route. The makeup of their party, though, which had been a kind of cover in the Merchant Town, might attract attention outside it. Aiel told Lin that he thought the best course, if met by curiosity, would be to say only that they were heading for the Gatehouse, Priests and Swordsmen escorting the maidens for safety. Apart from the Dancers, there were other reasons why travellers might visit the Gatehouse, even if rarely, so their explanation would stand. They went back to considering their plans. Aiel said “When we went astray on the Lightstone Way, the Lightstone helped me to see the right direction, as if I looked at a map. If we are unsure, I will try the Lightstone again, to help us. But we need to decide where to rest on the way.” “There was the little wood, with the strange trees.” Lin remembered.”If we can find it again, there was water, and shelter to camp.” “And the village, where we stayed at the inn, and Krystha tended the sick babe.” Aiel added.

“And the caves…” Lin began, then stopped, remembering how, on the night before reaching the Gatehouse, when they had sheltered in those caves, Aiel had been so troubled, under attack from the dark thoughts and doubts that had assailed him as the Darkness tried to divert him from the Way. Aiel, sensing Lin’s reluctance to remind him of that night, smiled at his friend and said “That was a long and bitter night, Lin, but by the mercy of Light, and the support and prayers of my friends, I came through it, and did not fail Light. And I think it helps me to understand, now, something of Marla’s fears and doubts.” Lin sighed “It was a long night, indeed!” Then he brightened, and said, “But all that is long behind us, my friend!”Aiel nodded, and asked, “Do you think we shall manage, camping in the open, Lin? It grows cooler as we move North, and the nights are still not warm. I am concerned for Marla. she is not strong.” Lin considered, and said “Last time we came this way, Varn advised us to buy extra coverings. Perhaps we should do so again.” “I remember” Aiel answered. “If they can still be got, it would be practical, Lin.” Accordingly, they went to consult the Priest-in-Charge of the Faring House and he told them that yes. that merchant was still trading. Hearing this, they went to find the rest of their party, and Aiel asked Mellin and Janir to go out into the town to make the purchases, and at the same time to listen out for any news of the Children of Night. When they returned, the Swordsmen told Aiel that there were rumours abroad of the attempted abduction and, thankfully, the rescue of some maidens by the Children of Night – though, they said, nobody knew exactly who had been attacked. It had made the people of the Town nervous, however, and watchful of their young women. Janir said “I think that is a good thing, Aiel. With the townspeople on their guard, the Children of Night have likely enough gone into hiding. Certainly no on has seen any suspicious activity recently.” “Though” ,his cousin added, ” in a town as busy as this, it is not possible to know everything that is happening.” “Once we are safely past the Two-Moon-Tides, Marla is in less danger”Aiel reminded them.”It may be that, having failed this time, the Children of Night have retreated to plan new strategies. But we shall not let down our guard.” They spent the rest of the day preparing, in their various ways for the journey ahead, and also ensuring that the girls, as Arenel had said, took time to relax and recover.

The next morning Aila woke very early, excitement welling in her for more than one reason. First, because Aiel had seen the Dancers, and it was certain that Marla could and would be helped to attain Light. Second, because she knew now that Janir loved her as she loved him. And lastly because she and Janir were – however unofficially – betrothed. She slipped quietly out of bed, because the other two girls were still asleep, and went to bathe and dress. When that was done, she went out to the Hall of the Faring House, for her still recovering throat made her thirsty, and she knew that there would be some refreshment left out for guests. She was surprised to find Mellin there too, thoughtfully sipping at a cup of fruit juice. He greeted her with a smile, and poured her a cup. “Another early riser?” he asked. “Janir is up too – I think he has gone to talk to his horse!” Janir’s special relationship with Redhawk was a standing joke between the two Swordsmen cousins. “Aila” Mellin continued, “is it truly well with you? You have been through a terrible experience.” “It is well with me” she assured him. “What I have received from Light more than erases the harm Darkness tried to do me. And is it well with you, dear?” “Much more than it has been” he confessed. “Aiel has brought me hope, Aila. If Marla can attain Light, that is all I wish. It may be that after that, I can teach her to care for me, but now I only want to know that she is free in Light, and safe from Si-Mara and her vile intentions.” “Is that what woke you?” Aila asked. “I am excited for her too. It will be so wonderful when she attains Light, Mellin.” “Of all things, the most wonderful!” he exclaimed. She put down her cup, and told him she would be walking in the grounds of the Faring House. He did not offer to accompany her, and she guessed that he hoped she might encounter Janir, not knowing that things were already settled between them. She wished she might tell her sympathetic cousin so, but she and Janir had vowed to keep their love for each other and their betrothal a secret till Marla’s Way ended successfully. So, though Mellin knew of her secret love for Janir, she could not yet tell him of its happy outcome.

She went to the stables, where, sure enough, on entering, she heard Janir murmuring to Redhawk as he groomed the horse. She had tried to tread quietly, to surprise Janir, so coming closer, she heard what he was saying softly to the beast. “I almost think I have dreamt it…that Aila should love me! After all this time it seems as unlikely as that you, old friend, should sprout wings and carry me above the stars…did I dream it, Redhawk – that I held her in my arms, and she said she would be my Lady?” Aila, moved, and aching with love for him, said almost as softly “No, Janir my heart, it is not a dream.” “Aila!” he exclaimed joyously, turning to meet her, while Redhawk snuffed at her in greeting. They wrapped their arms around each other and kissed, while the patient horse blew softly down his nose, then, realising that his master’s attention was otherwise occupied, began to munch quietly at the fodder in the rack. After a while Janir lifted his head and said ” I was afraid that it might have been a dream, Aila. After yesterday morning there was no time to be alone with you, and I wondered if I had imagined things that were not, in my concern for you.” “I love you” she told him. “Whatever happens, do not doubt that, Janir.” “Nor you my love for you” he said, then, somewhere deep in his throat, “Oh, my sweet, sweet Aila…” He kissed her again, with an ardent longing that startled her into a gasp. As if from very far away, she heard him give a strange little half-groan, and then he released her, and stepped a little way away from her, and gently but very firmly took her by the shoulders and put her away from him. His face was flushed, and his breathing had quickened. “My love” he said “go back now…it is not seemly that we should be here like this…” She smiled at him gently, understanding. “Yes, Janir. I am sorry, my heart. I did not mean…” She paused, not wanting to embarrass him, and said, lightly changing the subject, “Breakfast will be ready soon. I will see you in the Eating House, in a little while.” She kissed her fingers to him, and left the stables, feeling a strange warmth in her. Her love was a man of ardour, as well as honour, she thought, and though she would be careful now not to tempt him unduly, she was glad that, when the right time came, he could want her so. “When Marla has attained Light” she thought to herself ” and we are married” – for she had no doubt that Aiel and Arentha would gladly accept Janir as her betrothed – “then I can belong to him, and I will make him so happy!”

Once she had composed herself, Aila returned to the Faring House and the room she had shared with the other girls, and found them awake and prepared for the day. Aila asked “Is it well with you both?” and Marla answered “oh, yes! I own I was a little afraid to go to the Bathing Place, after…” she paused, then went on “But Zohra came with me, and she is so brave”, and she smiled at the Westerner , “that she gave me courage.” Zohra said “Not so brave, Marla, but I felt safe knowing that Aiel was back with us.” Marla said “Aiel – he has given me such hope! To think that Light has promised me the help of a Shining One – I truly believe I shall attain Light, now!” “Of course you will!”Zohra said, stoutly, and Aila echoed her, and gave Marla a quick hug. The three girls made their way to the Eating House and found the men there, waiting for them. Aila cast a quick glance at Janir, who caught the look, and gave her a brief smile to show that all was well with him. As they ate, Aiel told them that he had sought Light’s aid through the Lightstone for their route, as he had told Lin he would, and was now surer of their way. They could follow the usual, if little used, route to the Gatehouse, not having the constraints of Aiel’s previous journey to hinder them, though, he warned, they must still be wary of pursuit, and watchful. “Though the danger to Marla of Si-Mara’s dark ‘ceremonies’ is over, once the Two-Moon-Tides are past” he added, not wanting to alarm the girl. “One more night here, and then we can be on our way to the Gatehouse.”


Chapter 8

They were ready now to set out for the Merchant Town, after their day’s enforced stay at the Faring House. They bade farewell to Cerrin, Fara, and their children, and mounted ready for the ride ahead. Aila was pleased to see that Marla seemed to be more comfortable riding now, no doubt helped by a day’s rest, but also by growing accustomed to being on horseback. Aiel, with Lin, led the way now, and Mellin and Janir rode rearguard to protect them, the others in between. The going was not too rough, though they were in the uncultivated land skirting the Plateau of the Westerners, and with one break for a meal they had made good time when evening came and they began to think of finding a place to make camp for the night. As they rode up a slight incline and reached the top, however, Zohra gave a little cry of surprise, and pointed down. Below them, in a little hollow, was a familiar sight to the Westerner, a herders’ tent, with a few horses in an enclosure next to it, though working beasts, not the Westerners’ prized breed. No sign of herd-beasts, though, which made Aiel advise caution till he had sent out his Perception. He sensed no danger, so they rode down the slope towards the tent. He let Zohra take the lead, and she called a Westerners’ greeting to the occupants of the tent. After a moment a man appeared at the open tent flap, and looked surprised to see them, as well he might. “Lady Zohra!” he exclaimed”Welcome, you and your friends.” “Thank you” she answered ” You are far from the Plateau. And where are your herds?” “It is only myself and my kinsman, Lady. we are our way to Lady Fara at the Faring House, for he has been scalded in an accident while our group of herders was preparing a meal.”

Zohra said “Then it is well we met with you, for we have a Healer with us. She can tend your kinsman, and we will take shelter with you for the night.” She did not need to ask if they could stay, for hospitality was the unwritten law of the Westerners. However, she added “We have food and water, and need not burden you too much.” “You are welcome indeed, Lady. And if the Lady Healer will tend to Harn, we shall be grateful.” He came out to help the Swordsmen get the party’s horses into the enclosure, while the rest of them, led by Zohra, went into the tent. Though it had only two occupants, it was intended for use by a group of herders, so there would be room for them all. Harn, the injured man, recognised Zohra, of course, and greeted them all politely, then looked relieved as Aila came across to him and he saw the Healer’s sack and knife-sheath on her belt. “Your kinsman said you are hurt” she said, and he nodded and pulled back a loose sleeve to show his reddened arm. Aila gently examined it and was pleased to find no infection, and that, though some of the skin was beginning to peel, the burn was not too deep. Silently thanking Light again for the marvellous provision of springfollower at the Western Fortress, she pulled out one of the pots of salve she had prepared from it and carefully rubbed some into the man’s arm, then wrapped it in strips of clean cloth. “I will leave the salve with you and you must rub it in, night and morning, until the dead skin has come away. I will leave you some cloths too, to keep it covered and clean. It will heal well, but do not be tempted to pull off the peeling skin. Let it come away by itself.” The man smiled at her, and said “I thank you, Lady Healer. It begins to feel better already.”

The second herder, who had said his name was Talar, came into the tent with the three Swordsmen, who had brought some of their supplies with them. He too thanked Aila for tending his kinsman, then set out cushions for them to sit on. Herders and travellers shared their provisions and made a good evening meal, chatting amicably as they ate. Zohra asked “Will you return to the Plateau now?” “We will, Lady Zohra. We had to leave the others in charge of the herd-beasts, and it will soon be time to move to fresh grazing.” Aiel, knowing these Westerners could be trusted, told them “We have a special task to undertake, and may be pursued by Children of Night. If you meet any strangers seeking us, give them no information.” Since they knew him to be the Lightstone-Bearer, they agreed immediately, and Zohra added “My father Ket-Kai is on the Plateau, on his way back to the Ket’s Camp. Send him word of anything suspicious.” and this they promised to do. When the meal was finished the herders brought out some woven covers for their guests to use, and set out sleeping places for all, girls on one side of the tent and men on the other. They were all thankful for the shelter and the hospitality of the herders, and settled down to sleep, though the Swordsmen took the places nearest the tent entrance, in case of danger. Next morning they shared another meal with Harn and Talar, who said they would now pack up their camp and go back to join the others. Janir, always thoughtful of others, wondered how two men, one injured, would manage alone, and if they should offer to help, but Zohra laughed, and gently teased him “Janir, they have been doing this almost from childhood. You would only hinder them!” Aila asked “How will they carry everything with them, Zohra?” and the Westerner explained that as well as pack horses, the herders had a kind of sledge, pulled by one of the horses, with boxes built on to carry their goods. “It is an old-established way of moving camp.” she added.

They said their farewells and thanks to Harn and Talar, and prepared their own mounts to continue their journey. As they did, Aila noticed, though the others did not, Marla speaking earnestly to Mellin. He listened gravely to the girl, then smiled, and shook his head, as if he refuted some fear of hers. Still, Marla looked after him as he walked over to Starstorm and mounted, then turned and, seeing Aila watching, came across to her. “Is something wrong between you and Mellin?” Aila asked, forthrightly.”I thought he was your friend now, Marla.” “Oh, he is! He has been so kind to me, ever since the Western Fortress. No, it is that I am concerned for him, Aila. He is your cousin – you know him well?””Well enough to know if anything were wrong. Why, Marla?” “Is there anything that should cause him sorrow? I can feel it all about him, yet he never shows it. I thought that perhaps it was something I once said to him – asked of him – but he promised me it was not that, and I think he told the truth.” “Mellin would not lie, Marla. He may be outspoken sometimes, even harsh – oh, you know that yourself- but he is always honest. Yet I know of nothing that should cause him sorrow, unless he is worried about Aunt Krystha. Are you sure?” Marla smiled, but it was a sad smile. “My dark sense is never wrong. I wish it were. Mellin is full of sadness, Aila.” “Perhaps he feels sorrow for you, Marla, as we all do. None of us will be truly content until you attain Light.” Marla frowned. “Maybe, but – I have not felt in any of you, even the Lightstone-Bearer, who has accepted the task of freeing me from Darkness, what I feel in Mellin.” She paused, then added “I would not speak of this to Aiel or Arenel, but you too have Perception, Aila. Watch Mellin, and see if he needs help. You have all of you been so kind to me; I should not like to think that in helping me, he has come to any harm.”

Alerted by this conversation, Aila was watchful of her cousin as their journey continued. The route was easier now, on a track alongside the farmlands, and the journey was uneventful, which gave her more time to observe him. Once she began to do so she realised that yes, at times his manner did seem falsely bright, his good humour forced. She began to see things she had missed; moments when Mellin seemed subdued, as if he had withdrawn into his inner thoughts, or , when they paused for their meal, took part in conversations in a desultory way that showed his mind was on other things. By the evening, when they were ready to make camp again, Aila was sure that Marla was right. But what hidden sorrow could have taken such a grip of her normally carefree cousin? She decided to find a way to take him aside and question him, and, if possible, to allay whatever his fears might be.They had found a suitable place to camp, where there was a little stream for water, and some small trees whose lower branches the Swordsmen wove into rough shelters. That done, they made their evening meal, and after that, Aila waylaid Mellin and asked him to walk a little way with her, as she wanted to talk with him. Mellin agreed readily enough, and they followed the little stream down to a bend where it had carved out a tiny valley, and the trees were a little taller. Aila turned to her cousin, saying “We can talk privately here.” “What is wrong, Aila?” Mellin asked her. “That is what I wish to ask you. What is making you unhappy, Mellin?” “I? I am not unhappy” he evaded, but she had seen a wary expression flash in his eyes, and said “Mellin, I know you are sorrowing over something. Is it that you are afraid for Aunt Krystha in her pregnancy?”

He frowned then, and said accusingly “Aila, you had no right to Trespass your Perception…” “Not my Perception” Aila cut in, but gently, knowing his anger rose from his secret hurt. “It was Marla who felt the pain in you, by her Dark Perception. She was concerned for you, and unhappy lest the sorrow she felt in you was because of her Way. You had been so kind to her, she said, she did not want you to suffer because of it. Do not be angry with her, Mellin! She only told me about it because she wanted me to help you – and that is all I want to do, dear. Marla knows nothing of the Vow of Trespass, and she can by no means control her Dark Perception. You know that.” “Yes, I know that” her cousin echoed, with a strange tone to his voice that she did not understand.”I am not angry with her Aila – nor with you.” “Then will you tell me what is wrong?” “Why should I burden you?” Mellin asked. “I am already burdened, seeing you in pain” she told him “If you let me share your hurt, Mellin, maybe I can help you.” He hesitated a moment longer, then said, in a sudden rush of words, “Oh Aila – I am in love with Marla! Sweet Light, what shall I do?” It was so unexpected a confession that Aila stared at him in astonishment for several moments, then exclaimed “You love Marla? But Mellin, you hated her so, in the beginning!” Her cousin had been leaning back against one of the small trees, and now, as if all strength had left him, he slid down its trunk till he was sitting on the grass with his knees drawn up in front of him. He looked up at Aila and said “I was afraid, though I said I was not! I began to feel her tug at my heart, and I felt it must be some trick or enchantment. I was afraid and angry. I wanted to hurt her, to make her angry too, so that she would betray herself for the Dark thing she was, so that it must be an enchantment, what I was beginning to feel for her! But she was not angry, though I wounded her so -oh, Aila!-she was only understanding of me, and so unhappy. And when I saw her in the Prayer Room at the Western Fortress, and heard her pleading with Light to accept her, I could not deny the truth any longer. There was no evil intent in her, and I knew that what I had been doing was like – like giving poison to a wounded man who cried for water! Oh, I was so ashamed! And my shame turned to concern for her, and my concern, fight it though I might, to love. She is so vulnerable, and in such danger, and she has been hurt so much and there is so much for her yet to endure, yet she does not think of herself – see how concerned she was for me. I do love her, Aila, all my heart is given to her, yet I am afraid that I betray Light in loving her, since she is born of Darkness.”

The unhappy torrent of words ceased, and Aila looked into Mellin’s sorrowful face. “Oh, my dear!” she exclaimed “You do not betray Light. Light loves her too, Mellin.” “And there is another thing.” he told her. “In the Prayer Room she told me what Si-Mara plans to do to her at her ‘ceremonies’ – oh, I could not tell you, Aila, it is too foul for you to hear. The only reason Marla told me was because she had asked a pledge of me, and at first I would not give it. Aila, she asked me that if all hope of her attaining Light was gone, if Si-Mara triumphed, then I would – I would slay her with my sword, since she would no longer be able to choose death for herself, and she would rather die than have to endure such things, and be a slave to the Bloodstone.” Aila saw that there were tears in Mellin’s grey eyes. She asked quietly, not really needing to, “And you promised her?” “Yes, I promised. She said that there are worse things than to die quickly and cleanly, at the hands of a friend, in mercy. But Aila, if the need came, would I be able to do it, when I love her so?” “I think” she answered, gently,” that if the need came you would only be able to do it because you love her, Mellin. But I believe the need will not come, and Marla will attain Light.” She knelt then and put comforting arms round him, saying “Mellin, let me help you.” The words that came rose in her untaught, but she knew they were the right words.”Let us carry this burden to Light, together.” He lifted his eyes to hers, hesitant for just a moment, then offered his eyes to her Perception. Aila cupped his face in tender hands and let her Perception flow in, very gently, as if she tiptoed into his mind. Very carefully she went, letting him lead her into the sharing of his deep feelings, his hurts and fears, the attempts he had made to deny to himself the growing love he felt for Marla. Aila felt the burden on Mellin of the continuous tension of the Way, the stress made worse for him by the threat of having to fulfill the death pledge he had made to Marla. She experienced with her cousin the doubts that assailed him, lest he betray Light in loving this child of Darkness. His fears, his love, his sorrow, his doubts, his pains – they had woven a net that entrapped his soul. It was not easy to tease out all the tangled cords of his emotions and help Mellin to carry them and lay them before Light. In the end, though, he accepted both his love for Marla and his own belovedness to Light, and was reassured, so that when at last Aila was able to withdraw her Perception and touched him on the brow in blessing, her whispered “Light grant you peace, Mellin” was not a prayer, but a promise.

Intent as she had been on easing her cousin’s hurts, Aila was not even aware that there were tears for him on her cheeks, till Mellin gently wiped them away. He stood, helping her to her feet, and smiled at her, a little weakly still. After a moment he reached out and embraced her, bowing his head for a moment against her shoulder. “Aila, little cousin, thank you.” he murmured “It is not enough to say, but – thank you.” “Mellin, come to me, when there is need” she offered. “Light does not promise the pain will not be, but that you will receive strength to stand against it. I can help you.” “I will” he promised.”Aila, you have lifted such a burden from my soul…” “Not I, but Light” she told him quickly. He went on, “It is such a relief, to be able to say that I love her, to share my feelings.” Aila sighed, thinking of her own love for Janir. Mellin, made sensitive by his own emotions, and by the recent contact with her Perception, asked softly “So – is your heart given too? Who is it for you, Aila? Is it one of the Priesthood – or maybe some Sword-Brother of mine at the Fortress?” “Yes” she said, and blushed to the roots of her hair. But she could not be less honest with her cousin than he had been with her. “Yes, it is one of your Sword-Brethren, Mellin, but not of the Fortress. It is – it is Janir that I love.” She saw that though he was pleased at her choice, he also found it unexpected. “You chose well, Aila, and perhaps more wisely than you know. Yet I am surprised that you should love Janir, I own. I would not have thought he was the kind of man to attract you.” Aila thought, a little ruefully, that considering her early fancies, his comment was understandable. She said “Maybe I have grown up, Mellin, and learned to look on the character of a man, and not his outer seeming.” She looked at her cousin, and smiled “Janir is a good man. But he may not be for me” she added more soberly “Perhaps he is already in love, or betrothed.” “No” Mellin said “I would have known. He is not betrothed, and I do not think his heart is given yet. He is fond of you, Aila, and liking may turn to love.” “Aye” she said, plucking restlessly at a spray of leaves, “He is fond of me – like a sister, Mellin. But can he care for me as more than a ‘cousin of a cousin’?” “However he feels about you, he will never hurt you.” Mellin comforted her. “I know that, too.” she replied.

At that moment they heard a voice calling out to them, and realised that it was Janir himself. Mellin hastily rubbed away the signs of his tears. Aila smoothed her rumpled hair, wondering if Janir had overheard any of their conversation about him. Seeing some useful wild herbs growing nearby, she bent and hastily plucked a bunch, both as an excuse for her and Mellin to be here, and to hide her face till she could compose herself. Janir, though, was his usual good-humoured self. “Ah, here you are. Lin sent me to find you. He said it was best not to stray away from the camp – even allowing for your Perception, Aila.” “Oh, is he angry?” she asked. “No” Janir reassured her “Just concerned.” Aila was thankful that there was nothing in his manner to indicate that he had heard her confess her love for him to Mellin, and the three of them walked together back to the camp, chatting lightly.Once there, having apologised to Lin for her disappearance with Mellin, Aila sought out Marla, and told her “I have spoken to Mellin, and you were right, Marla, he has been sorrowing about …something.” Marla noticed her hesitation and said “Aila, I am not asking you to tell me what troubles him, I know you cannot. But were you able to help him?” “Yes” Aila said simply. “Just telling it eased him, and we brought his need to Light, and Light helped him. His hurt has not gone, and perhaps it never will ,but Light will help him to bear it. I have told him to come to me for help when he needs it. Thank you, Marla.” She smiled at the other girl, and said softly, “You are an amazing person, to be so concerned for Mellin when you have such burdens of your own to carry.” “But they are mine to carry” Marla said, “I would not wish to drop them into any other’s spirit.” She paused, then said, “I made Mellin give me a promise. I hope I have not hurt him by it.” “He told me.” Aila said. “Of course, he would be loathe to do it, but it was not that which hurt him, Marla. Do not worry over that.” “I am glad.” Marla said. Aila, surprised to find that she was still clutching the little bunch of herbs, stowed them in her Healer’s sack, and looked up to find Janir watching her. She smiled at him and said “Always as well to gather my herbs while I may, Janir.” He smiled back and said “Yes, you are wise to be prepared, Aila. A sign of a good Healer.” He turned, then, and indicated the withy shelters the Swordsmen had made. “Do you think you will be comfortable enough there, you and the other maidens.?” “Oh, I am sure we shall, Janir. It is only for one night.”

Aiel had been standing a little apart from the others, gazing into the Lightstone. Arenel wondered what his father might be doing, though he had no doubt that it had to do with Marla’s Way. Now Aiel disengaged his Perception from the Lightstone and looked around him, but said nothing of what had occupied him. Instead he said “Let us try to sleep now. If we leave early enough tomorrow we should be able to reach the Merchant Town.” They all agreed, and Aila and the other girls ducked into the shelter that had been made for them,and wrapped themselves in their cloaks as before, while the menfolk did the same in the other shelters. The Swordsmen, though, as usual, took turns on watch in case of danger. The girls were cosy enough, snuggled together in their cloaks. Zohra, of course, was well used to sleeping out in the open, and Aila and Marla were tired from their ride, so all three slept well. They were woken by Arenel, who called to them from outside the shelter. The early morning was a little chilly, but bright, and the others were already awake.Once again they made a hasty breakfast before setting out. It seemed Aiel was anxious to get to the Merchant Town, though he gave no reason. Arenel wondered again if it was to do with his father’s use of the Lightstone the previous night. The Lightstone-Bearer’s estimation had been correct, for they made good time, and having decided not to stop again, they reached the Merchant Town by mid-afternoon. Admitted by the Watchwards at the Town Gates, they made their way to the Faring House, where they received a warm welcome and were allotted rooms to sleep and a Quiet Room to share. Since the Priests of the Faring House knew who Aiel was, and what he had achieved on the Lightstone Way, they naturally wanted to speak with him, and see the Lightstone, and he could not in all courtesy refuse them. So it was a little later than expected that they went for their delayed meal.

The whole party was cautious, aware that in the Merchant Town they were at their most exposed. However, they had to keep the semblance of normality, and went to eat in the separate Eating House of the Faring House, though in a quiet corner. Such a large party would not normally pass unnoticed, but the Merchant Town was a busy place, with many travellers from all across Li’is, and so their group was not so unusual, despite the presence of a Westerner. Still, the Swordsmen were vigilant, and Aiel, Arenel and Aila kept their Perceptions alert, and all were glad when the meal was over and they could return to the Faring House. Once back there, though, they were surprised and concerned when Aiel gathered them together and quietly told them that he must leave for a few hours. Marla especially was fearful of losing his protection and that of the Lightstone, but Aiel assured her that he would not go unless it was of vital importance to her Way. “Arenel and Aila will Perceive if any Darkness comes near, and you have the finest Swordsmen in Li’is to protect you.” he reassured her “And I shall go and return as swiftly as I may. It is the next step on your Way, Marla, or I would not leave you.” She was still nervous, but accepted what he said, and Aila hugged her and said “Have no fear, Marla, we will guard you well till he returns.” That said, Aiel went to the stables to collect his mount and set out on his mysterious journey, and the others set about reassuring Marla, and trying to cheer her with light conversation. As evening drew near, it was time to bathe and prepare for sleep. The three Swordsmen said they would wait till last, so that there was someone to keep guard if need be, at all times, so Arenel went to find the Priest-in-Charge and returned with him. Arrangements were made, and he said that a maidservant would come to collect the maidens when their Bathing Place was free, and meanwhile he would take Arenel to his. They would be given fresh clothing while theirs was cleaned, and nightwear left in the rooms allotted them.

Arenel went to bathe, and then, refreshed, popped his head into the room where the others were, and said he was going to the Prayer Room to make his Evening Prayers. The others were chatting, quietly, wondering where Aiel was going and why, but keeping their words circumspect in case of being overheard, when a maidservant came to take the girls to the Bathing Place. She was a little older than they might have expected, and waited politely until they were ready, then went ahead of them. The maidservant led the three girls to the women’s Bathing Place which, unusually, was in a separate building, set a little apart from the main Faring House, in the gardens, and screened by ornamental bushes. The woman was deft and courteous, laying out drying cloths and clean clothing for them. Yet Aila felt a tingle in her Perception that said something was not quite right, which made her stare intently after the servant as she left. “What is it, Aila?” Zohra asked, noticing this. When it came to putting her feelings into words, though, they seemed so vague that Aila had second thoughts. Marla had not, apparently, sensed anything with her ‘Dark Perception’. Perhaps Aila’s own impressions were due more to fatigue and the tension of Aiel’s absence than Perception. Not wishing to cause unnecessary alarm, she laughed, and answered, “Oh, nothing, Zohra. I was lost in thought.” By the time they had enjoyed a relaxing bathe in the hot water and a dip in the cooler pool, and were drying themselves, Aila was convinced that she had been suffering from an over-active imagination. But then, as they dressed, Zohra said “How sweetly these gowns smell. They must use sweet spices in their clothes preparation here.”The words struck a warning chord in Aila’s mind, and she raised her arm and sniffed at the sleeve of her gown. A familiar, sweet perfume assailed her, making her head swim. The steamy air of the Bathing Place had dampened the aroma, so that they had not suspected, but Zohra’s keen senses had warned them. Now Aila cried “Marla, Zohra – there is sweetwood powder in the gowns! Take them off!” and began tugging at her own garment.. Already the narcotic spice was beginning to affect her. As if in a dream she saw Marla, who had dressed first,put her hand to her brow and slide to the floor. She saw Zohra struggling feebly to free herself from the drugged gown. Aila too fought to free herself, but her arms seemed heavy, as if they were weighted down. The door opened and the treacherous serving woman appeared, followed by three grinning, black-clad men – Children of Night! Aila, knowing they could not escape, threw all her remaining strength into launching her Perception outward, seeking her brother in the Faring House. “Arenel! Help us!” She felt the answering touch of her brother’s Perception, his alarm, but she was too dazed to communicate with him. Barely conscious, she felt herself seized and dragged away, and then the drug completely overcame her.

Arenel, who had been in the Prayer Room, leapt up as his sister’s desperate plea shot into his Perception. “Aila!” he cried aloud, then tried to calm himself and concentrate on making with her Perception. He could not reach her, though, and a pang of fear went through him. Aila could not be far enough away for distance to affect their communication – not in such a short time. If his Perception could not reach hers, it meant she was unconscious – or even dead. That thought, though, was too terrible, and he brushed it aside, trying to think what might have happened. If they had been followed and spied on, then now, just when his father, the Lightstone-Bearer, had left them for a few hours, would be the ideal time for the Children of Night to make their move to snatch Marla back. And if Aila and Zohra were with her,they would be taken too – to what fate? “I am wasting time” he told himself “I must find Lin!” Hurrying to the room they had been given, Arenel was thankful to find the Swordsmen relaxing there. His hurried entrance, though, and one glance at his stricken face, was enough to bring all three to their feet. Mellin’s chair crashed to the floor, Janir reached for his sword-belt which was lying on the table, Lin asked quickly “What has happened?” “I do not know!” Arenel answered, fighting to keep calm enough to give Lin the information he needed. “I felt Aila’s Perception touch mine. She was scared – she cried out to me “Arenel, help us!” And then I could Perceive nothing more. Oh Lin, she is unconscious or – or something worse! And I know nothing of Marla or Zohra, but Aila said “Help us!” Lin’s face was grave. “Had the maidens left the Faring House? Mellin, go and find out. Janir, to the stables and have our horses saddled. We will likely need them.” As his son and nephew went to do his bidding, Janir buckling on his sword as he went, Lin turned back to the young Priest. “Arenel, try to think quietly. Can you remember anything else? Anything at all?”

He waited patiently as Arenel withdrew inwards, searching his Perception of Aila’s brief, urgent message for other impressions that might have underlain the sense of fear and the worded message. After a minute or so Arenel’s eyes lost their absent expression and looked again at his unce. “She was seeing a woman – a woman at the door with three men in black – Children of Night. A treacherous servant, her thought was. Something about sweetwood- the smell of sweetwood powder in the gowns they were given” He sighed wearily, and rubbed his forehead. “That is all I can find, Lin.” “It is enough.” Lin said. “Do not tire yourself, Arenel. We will need your Perception.” Janir came in. “The horses are ready.” Almost on his heels came Mellin. “They had gone to bathe – their Bathing Place is a little away from the main House. There is no one there, but their soiled clothing is there still. A maidservant is missing who went with them, she must have been captured too.” “No” Lin said “Arenel has searched his Perception. Aila had thought of a treacherous servant, and sweetwood powder in their gowns, and three Children of Night at the door. The woman must have drugged the gowns, and let the men in to carry off the maidens. Quickly now! Our one advantage is that they will not expect pursuit, since they could not know of Aila’s message.” As they hurried to the stables, Lin outlined his plans.”Arenel, you must keep trying to reach Aila. Sweetwood powder is potent, but its effects do not last long. And try to reach Aiel, too. He must be on his way back by now. If – when- we find the maidens, I think Zohra will be in the least danger, so you must take her up, Arenel. Mellin, take Marla, and Janir, Aila. If we must fight, we will, but our first aim is to get the girls out. I will guard your backs. And whatever happens, do as we have planned, or there will be confusion.” Once mounted, they cast around the area of the Bathing Place for tracks. “They must be on foot” Mellin said “at least for a while. They could not have got horses so close without being seen.” “Unless the maidservant had them hidden somewhere. ” suggested Janir. Surprisingly, it was Arenel, not one of the sharp-eyed Swordsmen, who saw the first sign, a footprint in a patch of soft earth, and a mark alongside as though something had been dragged. Lin nodded grimly. “That is them. Which way are they going? Come!” Once they found it, the trail was easy to follow- the Children of Night had not bothered to hide their tracks. The four pursuers could not ride too fast, in case they should miss the trail, but their enemies were on foot, and hampered by their unconscious captives, and Arenel began to be hopeful for his sister and her friends again.

As Lin had said, the sweetwood powder was strong but short-lived in its effects, and Aila came to a dazed consciousness of being half-carried, half-dragged along, evidently over rough ground from the frequent stumbles and curses of her abductor. She made herself keep still and limp, hoping that it would hinder him, and reached out her Perception again, searching for Arenel’s, not sure if he had heard her first hurried appeal. She bit back the sob of relief that rose to her lips when her Perception meshed with her brother’s, feeling his reassurance that help was on the way, and his concern for her, still dazed from the drug and fearful for herself and her friends, especially Marla. Arenel told her, gently, to be still and not try to communicate yet, simply to leave her Perception open to him so that he Perceived what she did. He helped her to build the links of the Thought-without-Words, holding open their two-way connection without need of conscious communication and independent of outside circumstances. Then Arenel withdrew for a moment to report to Lin, and Aila concentrated on clearing her head and picking up any clue which might help Arenel and the Swordsmen to find them. She heard Zohra’s indignant voice then, still thick from the drug, demanding to be freed. It was cut off, no doubt by a hand across the mouth, but her captor’s curses and references to the ‘Western wildcat!’ showed that Zohra was not taking her captivity easily. Aila risked opening her eyes a little, so that Arenel could Perceive their surroundings. They had left the Town, presumably by some back way, and were in scrubland, rough and dismal. She guessed they were on the East side of the Merchant Town, for there was a salt tang to the air, and Aila could hear, distantly, a faint roaring that might have been the sea. In the distance was a small copse of trees, and it was towards this that they seemed to be heading.

Aila’s captor spoke. “Careful with the blonde. She is the important one.” “Who is she?” asked the man he had addressed, who was carrying Marla. To Aila’s narrowed view the girl appeared to be still deeply unconscious. The first man gave an unpleasant laugh. “I know nothing-I am not so high in the ranks! But you can see she is from Ma’al -or bred from there.” Zohra’s abductor said “Then what was she doing – keep still, Night curse you!” – this to Zohra – “what was she doing with Priests and Swordsmen?” Aila felt her captor shrug. “Who knows? Someone high up in the Night Temple’s ranks has come from the City and wants these three, and we were told to get them. That is all I know.” He cursed again, then, and said, “If this one does not wake soon, I shall drag her by the hair! It is heavy going!” At that, Aila felt it expedient, having now recovered her senses, to pretend to waken. She feigned a groan, and opened her eyes. The man who carried her looked down at her with small, pale eyes that looked odd in a swarthy face, and cursed once more. “This one is Priests’ spawn!” he called to his comrades. “She has the Blue Eyes.” His crony laughed an ugly laugh. “All the more sport, then, if they are given to us when they are finished with!” he said. Arenel, having told Lin that he was in contact with Aila, had concentrated on listening with her ears and seeing with her eyes. Now, though, he turned a distressed face to Lin. “They are talking of – of ‘sport’ with the maidens!” he exclaimed, horrified, knowing what kind of ‘sport’ the Children of Night would mean. Lin’s face too was grave. He remembered – would never forget- that on Aiel’s Way they had found a young girl dying, raped and beaten, victim of the Children of Night, in the Dark City Ruins. But he held back his distress, lest Arenel sense it. “We must hurry!” was all he said, then “Arenel, tell us what you have seen, so we can recognise the place.”

Marla regained consciousness suddenly and in terror, screaming and struggling. Aila called out to her to comfort her, and was rewarded by a stinging slap from her captor. The three girls were forced to walk now and Aila, despite her contact with Arenel, began to be afraid as she saw the men were taking them into the copse they had seen earlier, for she Perceived a Darkness emanating from it. Forced to pass into the trees, they saw a still, tall figure in a hooded cloak, waiting. Aila knew it was the source of the Darkness she had felt. As they drew nearer, the man threw back his hood, and Aila saw that it was Tamat, Si-Mara’s bodyguard and lover. He smiled mirthlessly, and made Marla an ironic bow. “Welcome, Lady Marla! We have been waiting for you. The Lady Si-Mara, your mother, sent me to find you, fearing you had lost your way, Your people and your Temple eagerly await your return.” Marla might have blanched, if she were not already so pale, but she kept her head high and defiant, her voice steady. “I have not lost my way. It does not lie in service to Darkness. I will not return to Si-Mara!” “Oh, but you will, Lady! But you have been keeping strange company.” He gestured for Aila and Zohra to be brought to him, seized Aila’s chin in a cruel grasp, and forced her head up, staring defiantly into her Perception-gifted eyes. “The child of our greatest enemy!” “Let her go!” Marla cried. “Oh no, you do not command me yet, Lady” Tamat said, smiling cruelly, “Not until you wield the Bloodstone!” He held Aila a moment longer, as if to show that he released her in his own good time, then turned to Zohra. “The granddaughter of the Ket” he mused, “yes, a useful hostage for the old man’s cooperation.” “The Ket is loyal to Light alone!” Zohra cried, her dark eyes sparking with anger. “He would not buy my life at such a price – nor would I wish him to.” “Your life, no – but your honour might be a different thing. The old fool is fond of you. And when the Lady Marla wields the Bloodstone and Darkness rules in Li’is as in Ma’al – he will have no choice then, Zohra of the West!”

Marla said, in a firm, clear voice, “I will not wield the Bloodstone, nor surrender myself and this world to Darkness. I will die first.” “Not even to save the life of your friend?” he asked, indicating Aila. Marla. almost tricked for a moment, cast a distressed look at Aila, who cried “No! Do not heed him, Marla. He would not let me go.” “I know” Marla said sadly, her Dark sense for once aiding her, warning her that Tamat lied. The man’s face twisted in an evil grin that was almost a snarl. “Aye” he hissed “Too sweet it will be to take revenge on the Lightstone-Bearer, through his daughter, for Lak’s defeat at his hands.” Then, to Aila’s captor and the other men, he said “This one is no more use to us – take her! But leave her alive- for the Black Altar!” The man who was still holding Aila gave a smile of gleeful lust, and pushed her to the ground. She cried out in fear as his hands pawed at her, tearing at her gown, and her Perception flashed a terrified plea to Arenel to come quickly, come now, to her aid. Marla, in fear for her friend, cried out “Stop! I have – I have the Touch of Darkness! I can destroy you if you harm her.” Tamat cried out in answer , and there was triumph in his voice, “Aye, use the Dark Power, Lady! Use it, and honour Darkness! Use it, and be bound to the Lords of Darkness forever!” Aila, even in the midst of her own fear, knew Marla was in peril. In this moment of terror, the other girl must have somehow realised that she possessed some Dark power which could slay Aila’s attacker. But even if she tried to use it for good, to save Aila, Marla would be bound by it to Darkness, never to attain Light. Despite her own desperate situation, Aila, aware of the danger to Marla, screamed out “Marla, no! Do not use the Dark power! You will be lost to Light forever.” Her attacker tried to gag her, but she evaded him, and cried again “It does not matter what happens to me – if I die, I will touch Light. Do not use it!”The Child of Night had her by the throat now and Tamat, enraged by her resistance, shrieked at the man, who was straddling her, “Kill her! Kill the Priest spawn!”

Aila, eyes wide with fear, saw the man’s face twist with evil pleasure and realised with a cold shock that he was enjoying the thought of killing her, that it was more pleasing to him even than sating his lust on her. She felt sick with horror and fear as the evil face loomed closer. She heard, as if from far away, Marla scream her name, with a sob in her voice, then, thankfully, Zohra, her voice taut more with anger than fear, say firmly “Marla, you must not use the Dark power! Whatever happens, you must do as Aila said.” Now the man’s hands tightened on Aila’s throat, squeezing, choking. Surely Arenel would feel, would know, would bring rescue quickly? At first she fought against her would-be murderer, but soon could spare little strength to struggle. She was choking, suffocating, her blood drumming in her ears, redness swimming before her closed eyes. On the edge of consciousness, her mind screamed “Arenel!” Arenel had turned, begun to tell Lin that Aila was in great danger and they must hurry -for they could see the copse now- when the Child of Night began to strangle her. The link which he and his sister had built through the Thought-without-Words entrapped him now; feeling everything she felt, it was as if he too were under attack. The young Priest swayed in the saddle, gasping and choking, while Lin caught his reins in alarm and Mellin wondered if it were some kind of seizure. It was Janir who grasped what was happening. “The Thought-without-Words!” he cried, “He feels what Aila feels. Lin, they are killing her!” “Go!” Lin said, urgently, “I will deal with Arenel.” Before he spoke, Janir had already urged Redhawk at a gallop towards the trees, and Mellin raced after him. Lin turned to Arenel. remembering what Krystha had done, so many years before, when Aiel’s Perception was similarly entrapped, Lin leaned across and slapped Arenel hard on both cheeks. For a moment Arenel still looked dazed, then he shook his head and looked at Lin, realising what had happened. “Aila! They are strangling her, Lin!” “Janir has gone to her aid” Lin said ” And Mellin. Quick now, after them. But trust Aila to Janir – he will not fail – and stay with our battle plan, Arenel.” As they galloped after the others, he repeated his warning. “Arenel, I know you will want to go to Aila. But you must take up Zohra, as we planned.” “I will, I understand.” the young Priest replied.

Janir had ridden like a wild thing, as if Redhawk had wings indeed. Mellin, skilful horseman though he was, had difficulty in keeping up with his cousin. Their whirlwind arrival among the Children of Night, though, proved in their favour, startling and unnerving their foes .Only Zohra, true child of the West, grasped immediately what was happening and seized the chance to break free of her captor, crying to the Swordsmen “Over there! Save Aila!” She pointed to where Aila lay at her attacker’s mercy, but Mellin, remembering Lin’s orders, left Aila’s rescue to Janir and rode at Tamat, who was trying to drag away the struggling Mrla. Janir leapt from horseback at the man who knelt astride Aila, hands tight on her throat, and jerked him backwards, freeing her. Then he threw the man forcefully aside and turned towards Aila, but her attacker came up again, a dagger in one hand, drawing his sword with the other. Drawing his own sword, Janir swung back to meet the assault, protecting himself and Aila. The Child of Night was not as skillful a swordsman as Janir, but he was a different kind of fighter, eager to kill, and treacherous. Janir, bound by his Swordsman’s vows, wanted only to disarm or disable the man, having in mind that to kill the Child of Night meant sending him, soul and spirit, into Darkness forever. He moved suddenly, swiftly, to disarm the Child of Night, but his opponent, seeing Janir’s side apparently unguarded, lunged forward with his dagger. Janir had to twist quickly away, altering his stroke, and his blade pierced his opponent’s body. The Child of Night gave a cry, dropped his weapons, staggered backwards and fell, while Janir stood shocked, never having meant to kill. The Swordsman moved forward and knelt beside the fallen man, hoping he might only be wounded, but saw at once that the man was dead. He knew that he had had no choice, having to save not only his own life but Aila’s – if she were not already dead – but it did not lessen the impact of how he felt at having taken a life, though it was an enemy’s. A cry from Lin alerted him to danger as he knelt there. Another Child of Night was leaping at him, knife in hand, and he rolled aside barely in time, the knife gashing his thigh. Lin leapt over the body of the man Janir had killed and pursued the other attacker into the trees, and Janir turned to tend Aila.

Aila had been lying still, half on the edge of oblivion, gratefully aware of rescue but not wanting to move. She had taken one great gulp of air as Janir hauled away her attacker, but it had so abused her raw throat and achingly empty seeming lungs that after that she had breathed very slowly and carefully. She could not know how still she lay, how ghastly her bruised, blotched throat and her face, first near purple with strangulation, now slowly draining to white, looked. Janir, as he knelt beside her, seeing her so very still, apparently unbreathing, felt certain he had come too late and she was dead. He raised her up in his arms, his face pale. “Aila!” he cried, and it was a wail of despair. Arenel, who had followed Lin’s instructions and lifted Zohra up behind him, heard Janir, checked his horse and reached out for Aila’s perception. She felt the touch, his love and fear for her, and found enough strength to reassure her brother. “Praise Light, she is alive!” he told Zohra, and turned his mount in the direction of the Faring House. Mellin, meanwhile, was struggling to help Marla. He had hurled himself straight at Tamat, knowing him to be the chief danger to Marla, managing to tear the girl from Tamat’s grasp. As they fought, she had cowered back among the tress, dazed and terrified. Eventually Mellin had first slightly wounded, then disarmed Si-Mara’s lieutenant, and the man had been forced to flee, throwing curses and threats of revenge over his shoulder at the Swordsman. Despite his threats to Marla, Tamat had had to leave her behind him, after all. She was so terrified, though, and near-hysterical with grief for Aila, that she was quite unable to distinguish friend from foe. When Mellin tried to lift her on to his horse and take her to safety, she struggled frantically, beating her fists on his chest, screaming with fear and anguish. Mellin gave up trying to get her on the horse. Instead he held her closely against him, gentling her. Quietly and patiently he spoke calming words to her, calling her by name, telling her who he was, until at last his familiar voice broke through her terror, and reached her. Then she quieted and listened to his reassurances and let him lift her on to the horse. He mounted behind her, looked round, and saw that all their enemies were routed, and Janir was tending Aila. Though anxious about her, he knew he must leave her to his cousin’s care and get the still distressed Marla back to the Faring House.

Aila, with an effort, snatched herself back from the edge of the faintness which tempted her to slip into it and forget, and opened her eyes. She found herself gazing into Janir’s despairing face, and felt a pang at the sorrow and hopelessness etched on it. When he saw her eyes open, though, new hope washed them away. He gave a little startled jump and exclaimed “Aila! Aila, can you hear me?” Aila tried to speak, but her throat hurt so much that she could not. She nodded her head instead, but the slight movement brought instant nausea, and Janir, seeing her need, gently leaned her over while she was very sick. When it was over, she found that she was icy cold, and trembling violently, and crying. She was only dimly aware of Janir pulling her to him, holding her tightly to try to warm her and still her trembling, yet her Healer’s mind told her, quite clearly, ‘It is the shock.’ Lin had returned from his pursuit of the attackers, and Janir, sounding close to tears himself, yet with a tone almost of triumph in his voice, told his uncle ” Oh, Lin -praise Light, Aila is alive!” “Praise Light!” Lin echoed fervently “But we must get her back to the Healers, at once.” Suddenly Aila felt Arenel’s Perception nudge hers, carrying his love and concern for her, but a welcome message too. Aiel was returning, would be at the Faring House when they arrived. “Father!” she whispered, very hoarsely “Take me to him, Janir.” “He has returned?” Lin exclaimed, thankfully. Janir lifted Aila and carried her to Redhawk. Lin took her until Janir had mounted, then lifted her up to his nephew. As he held her, Lin looked at her with deep concern, murmuring “Aila, child!” She wanted to smile at him, to comfort him, but she could not, she was still too shaken. She clung to Janir, as much for warmth as for solace, as they rode, and he held her tightly to him with one arm, murmuring a constant stream of comfort and encouragement. Aila could feel too, though she still lacked the strength to extend her Perception to them, a background of reassurance and love from Aiel and Arenel.

They reached the gates of the Merchant Town and she heard Lin, in hurried conversation with the Watchwards, telling of the girls’ abduction and the presence of Children of Night. Aila was aware of the faintness constantly enticing her, but felt she must hold on to consciousness until she reached the Faring House, though oblivion would have been welcome. She would not burden Janir further by fainting. They were back in the Town now, she could hear Lin’s horse behind them and it was good to know that her uncle was there, she was sure of her safety with Janir, yet she would not feel fully secure until she was back with her father, the Lightstone-Bearer. Where he was, all would be well. As if he divined her thoughts, she heard Janir say softly to her “Look, Aila, the Faring House – and Aiel! You are safe now.” With some difficulty, she lifted her head from Janir’s shoulder, and saw the Faring House doorway, and three figures standing there – Aiel, and Arenel, and behind them a Healer-Priest. Aiel came forward to meet them as Janir reined in his horse, and the Swordsman carefully lowered Aila into her father’s arms. Aiel clasped her tight, exclaiming “Aila! Oh, my precious child!” Aila sighed. Now she was safe, now she could surrender to the enticing faintness. “Father.” she murmured, and went limp, unconscious, in his embrace. Janir gave a cry of alarm, but Aiel said quickly “Have no fear for her, Janir. She is overburdened and has only fainted.” He looked up at the young Swordsman and went on “Janir, Arenel has told me that it was you who saved her. I owe you a debt I can never repay. To thank you seems hardly enough.” “She is alive” Janir said, rather gruffly. “That is all the thanks I need, Aiel.” The Lightstone-Bearer, Perceiving the echoes of intense emotion emanating from Janir, and not wishing to Trespass, said no more, but watched quietly as Janir dismounted, a little stiffly. Concerned, Aiel asked “You are hurt?” “It is nothing – just a cut.” “Come to the Healing Place” the Healer said, now that their first concerns had passed. “Bring the maiden. Your friends are all there.” Janir offered “I will carry Aila, Aiel” and Aiel relinquished his daughter to the Swordsman, feeling it might comfort Janir.

When they entered the Healing Place Marla, still in an agony of fear for her friend, sprang forward crying “Aila!Aila!” Seeing her distress, Aiel caught her. “Marla, it will be well with her. She has only fainted.” The girl, still too distressed to understand, looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. “Aiel, I am so sorry! Oh, what have I done? I could have saved her, if…” Aiel broke in, “Marla, hear me! Aila is alive.” “They – they did not kill her-” Marla gasped, as if she still could not quite comprehend it. “No, Janir came in time. He saved her.” “Oh, then – Aila was right” Marla said, “and I was right, not to use it.” Aiel asked “Marla, what do you mean?” The girl’s eyes were solemn now, as she replied “Oh, Aiel – when I saw the danger Aila was in, I suddenly knew that there was some Dark power within me that I could use to help her – the Touch of Darkness, I felt it named to me, and I knew it could blast her attacker to death, if I used it. Tamat told the men to – to take her, and I wanted to stop them – I cried out to them to stop, or I would use the power. But Tamat wanted me to use it, Aiel, that is why he ordered them to kill Aila, to make me use the power to try to save her. But to use it would have bound me to Darkness forever! Aila realised that, and cried to me not to use the power, whatever happened to her. So I did not – I let them – Aiel, was I right” she asked, in a sudden flood of self-doubt “or should I have used it, to save Aila all this – this terror?” Very gently, Aiel took her pale, unhappy face between his hands. “Aye, before Light, you were right, Marla” he confirmed. “To use such a power would have been to surrender yourself to Darkness – and Aila and Zohra as well. Do not doubt that you were right. Even if Aila had – died, you would have been right to refuse to use it.” While they were speaking Janir, following the Healer’s instructions, had laid Aila on one of the couches, where the man deftly examined her. Taking a pot of salve, he began to rub it carefully into her bruised throat, looking up to speak to them as he did so. “Her throat is badly bruised, and she has been dreadfully shocked.” he told them. “Nothing worse, physically. It is the fear of what has happened, the remembering, that will be the worst. But if she is strong in Light, that will pass too. It is love and tending and reassurance that she will need most.” Aiel drew out the Lightstone and went across to where Aila lay, leaning to lay the Stone to her brow. The soft light spilled over to embrace the unconscious girl, and when it withdrew, Aiel nodded and said “There, that will sustain her.”

The Healer smiled, and turned to Janir. “Come, let me dress that cut” he said, leading the Swordsman into a curtained alcove. Aiel, meanwhile, called the others to him. It was the Lightstone’s healing that they needed, and to all except Marla, whom he could not yet help in this way, he offered the Lightstone, and his Perception. Mellin and Zohra needed little but the Lightstone’s touch and quick reassurance. Arenel needed the most help, because of the Thought-without-Words; he had experienced much of Aila’s ordeal through that link and been deeply distressed by it. When Aiel was satisfied that the three young people would rest, he sent them to their beds. Marla, who had already been given a calming draught by the Healer when she arrived, in terror and tears, at the Faring House, went with them, Zohra supporting her with a friendly arm about her waist. At length Janir came out from behind the curtain where the Healer had been dressing the gash in his thigh. He looked at Aila, motionless on the couch, and then at Aiel, as if for reassurance. Aiel said “Do not be fearful for Aila, Janir. It will be well with her. Her spirit is strong in Light.” “I thought – at first I thought she was dead.” Janir said, heavily. Aiel could Perceive that the shadow of that fear was still on him, but there was something else too – some other sorrow that shadowed Janir’s spirit. The young Swordsman was very unhappy about something. “Janir, lad” he said quietly “I think your spirit is wounded too. Come, seek Light, and be healed.” Confidently, Aiel offered the Lightstone, and his Perception, to the Swordsman, but to his astonishment Janir made a polite but definite gesture of refusal. “Aial, I-I cannot!” he stammered, then turned his head away. After a moment, still not looking at any of them, he said “I – tonight I have slain a man, Aiel!”

“Aaah!” Lin breathed, in understanding. “You are right, Janir, there is no glory or pride to be taken in another’s death at your hands – but no blood-guilt either, if the thing cannot be helped. Janir, you know your Swordsman’s vows – to protect and fight for all that is of Light, and destroy all that is of Darkness.” “And not take life needlessly” Janir added, in a soft, dull voice.”Not even from the Children of Night, Lin. I could not even offer the Choice of Light – there was no time. So I have sent the man’s spirit into Darkness!” Aiel said gently, “Janir, we understand. But so does Light! It is a dreadful thing to have to do, but the need was there, and it had to be done. Light will not condemn you.” “Aiel, it is too new, too-too painful! I will come to you – to Light- when I am ready. But I am not ready, yet.” “Janir” Lin said “I know how you feel. But be wary of setting your own terms with Light!” “I cannot!” Janir said, almost angrily. “I cannot – not now!” Before any of them could speak again, he had turned and walked out of the Healing Place. Aiel said softly “Poor lad, it has come hard to him.” “Aye” Lin agreed, sombrely. “There is nothing that can prepare a man for it, Aiel – to see the breath go out of a living body, and know you have ended that life. I have only once had to kill a man – Soom. And you know, my friend, that that was at dire need. It is a dreadful thing – to send a living spirit into Darkness forever.” “If the Child of Night had not taken his dark road” the Healer said, practically, “he would not have died. The young Swordsman cannot blame himself. he is taking a guilt which is not his.” Aiel sighed. “Perhaps in the morning – if he can sleep tonight- he will see more clearly, and come to Light.”

It had been close on dusk when they had brought Aila back to the Faring House; now it was completely dark. The Healer had lit a small lamp at Aila’s bedside, which gave her face a peaceful glow. The two friends paused for a moment to look at the girl and say a silent prayer for her, then left the Healer to his tasks, bidding him goodnight, and left the Healing Place. In the corridor outside, a small side door stood ajar. Lin went to close it, then paused, and called softly “Aiel.” The Priest went to join his friend, and Lin said “Look”. The door led out into the herb garden of the Healing Place, and a soft breeze blew mingled scents, spicy, sweet and bitter, towards them from the plants. In a far corner of the little garden grew a huge and beautiful blackbark tree. In the darkness its sooty trunk and branches appeared insubstantial, almost invisible, while its massive crown of white blossom, touched by the moonlight, seemed to hang on the air like a luminous cloud, emitting a bitter-sweet aromatic perfume. Beneath the tree stood Janir. His back was to them, and he was leaning against the tree, his arms upraised and folded against the trunk, his head pillowed on them. He was very still, too still to be weeping, but his whole attitude spoke misery. Aiel sighed with compassion, the said “We cannot force him to seek peace, Lin. Let him wrestle awhile with himself, and grow stronger. He will seek Light soon, for he loves Light too much to distance himself for long.” Lin nodded agreement, with one more pitying glance at his distressed nephew. Leaving the door ajar so that Janir could come back inside when he wished, they went on their way.


Chapter 7

Next morning they breakfasted with Thulin and his family, then gathered up their gear. Thulin asked Janir “You are going through the Westmost Narrows? Is that wise, Janir?” “It is the way we must take.” Janir said, with such an air of finality that the kindly Priest responded “Well, if you must, then Light go with you, Janir – Light go with all of you.” “It will be well with us.” Aiel assured him. “We are on Light’s Way.” “Aiel – before you go – is it permitted for me to see the Lightstone?” “Aye” Aiel smiled, and drew out the Stone. Thulin gazed at it in wonder and Aiel said “Come nearer, Thulin” and when the other Priest obeyed, “Receive Light’s blessing” said the Lightstone-Bearer, and laid the Lightstone to Thulin’s brow. They watched quietly as the soft light filled and overflowed the Stone, bathing Thulin in a shower of light, and then withdrew, leaving, as always, a little of its glow in the Priest’s eyes. Janir’s face showed delight at this gift to his old friend, but it was nothing to the peace and joy on Thulin’s. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, thank you!” he exclaimed “Truly, I have been blessed of Light.” They said their farewells, mounted, and rode out of the walled enclave of the Western Faring House. Heading round behind it Janir, in the lead, aimed for a point that looked impassable, for there the cliffs bit into the land on one side, and the mountains swept down to meet them on the other. As they drew nearer, though, they saw that there was a narrow, rock-strewn track squeezed between the cliffs and the mountains. Janir halted, and turned in his saddle to caution them all.

“There lie the Westmost Narrows” he told them “The most treacherous paths in all Li’is. I would never bring you through them, except at great need. They are constantly changing ; the cliffs break away or the mountainside slips, and the path that was safe yesterday may be a place of peril today. I go first, and you will not let your mounts set foot in any place I have not trodden before you. Do you understand that? It is vital – one false step might carry you over the cliff edge, or under some rock fall. And make no loud noise or sudden movement, for this is the time of year, with the snows melting, when land slips or rock falls are most likely. I warn you now, our progress will be slow, for I will need to think three times about every step!” Impressed by his solemn warning, they spoke their agreement in muted tones, and Janir turned again and began to lead them cautiously towards the Narrows. Aila gasped as she followed the two younger Swordsmen on to the narrow, frightening path. Janir had insisted that Aiel drop back to ride in front of Lin, so that the maidens were surrounded by help if they should need it. Now Aila felt the touch of her father’s Perception, steadying and calming her. Yet he could not do as much for Marla, and Aila wondered how her friend was faring. If,as Janir had warned, the cliff edge were to crumble, with the unyielding flank of the mountain on the other side, there was nowhere to go but over the edge, down the sheer drop to the crashing sea. Aila watched very, very carefully where Janir and Mellin rode, and prayed that Marla was doing the same.

In stressed silence they traversed the first long stretch of the Narrows, and Aila wondered if it were like this the whole way through. She felt that much of this dreadful path would wear out the strongest – and Marla was not strong. At length, though, the mountain wall began to fall back and the track widened, so that they were able to draw cautiously away from the cliff edge. Janir reined in again to tell them quietly, “That is the worst part over – there is nowhere else so narrow. And further on there is a place where we may rest – if the rock falls have not overwhelmed it.” Aila glanced back at Marla and whispered “Marla, is it well with you?” The other girl smiled faintly, and nodded, but Aila was not convinced. There was no way, though, to tell what Marla was feeling. Even without the disguising colouring Marla’s face would never blanch or redden to betray her emotions. They rode on, still closely following Janir’s every step. At one point the path was cracked in two by a recent rock fall, and the young Swordsman deliberated for some time before leading them on to the upper part of the path, hard against the mountain, warning them to do nothing that might precipitate another fall. The worst that happened, though, was that Mellin’s horse stumbled a little, but he quickly collected it, with no harm done, and they went on. At last they reached the place Janir had spoken of, where the path widened out into a kind of blind cave in the mountain, and they were able to dismount to rest . A few stunted, gnarled trees grew there, seemingly out of the bare rock of the mountainside, and to these they tethered the horses, and sat down on their cloaks to rest and eat a little food to sustain them.

Janir let them rest as long as he dared, but, he said, they must get the worst of the journey over before nightfall. So they remounted and continued on their dangerous path. Rounding a bend, Janir gave an exclamation and pointed. Ahead of them the path appeared like a bridge between two gulfs, the sea cliff on one side and a deep gully on the other. Signalling to them to wait, Janir rode cautiously forward to examine the place, then came back to them. “The whole mountainside has fallen away!” he told them. “That gully was not here the last time I came this way. But it is not a new fall. I think we can pass safely. Watch what I do.” He rode forward cautiously. The path was quite wide and seemed solid enough; he crossed and recrossed several times before deciding they could go on. Aila watched these manoeuvres with her heart in her mouth, fearful for her ‘cousin of a cousin’ ,and was greatly relieved when he halted on the far side and signalled for them to cross. Mellin went next, carefully following his cousin’s lead and keeping to the very middle of the path. As he crossed, though, his horse trod on a piece of rock. It was the same foot on which he had stumbled before and, perhaps weakened by that jolt, the beast’s foot rolled and it dropped to one knee, throwing Mellin. Unhurt, he rolled to the side of the path and scrambled to his feet, but as he stood, the edge of the path crumbled under his heels, and he swayed and tumbled backwards into the gully.

Aila screamed “Mellin!”, Marla cried out incoherently, Lin started forward with a shout of dismay, but Janir’s voice cut across them all, sharp with command “No! Be still, all of you! You will not help Mellin by going over yourselves!” Startled, they stopped in their tracks. More gently, Janir said “Wait now” and rode cautiously back to the middle of the path-bridge to peer over. They heard him give a great sigh, and a quick “Praise Light!” Then he called “Mellin – Sword-Brother?” Aila felt dizzy with relief when she head a faint, answering groan from her cousin. Janir called back to them “There is a ledge. He fell on that, by the mercy of Light!” As he spoke, he was reaching into his saddlebag, coming up with a coil of light, strong rope. “Lin, here, and hold the rope.” he said, “Leave your horse.” He slid from the saddle , gave Redhawk a gentle pat, and whispered in the beast’s ear. The horse trotted obediently to the other side of the path, and Mellin’s horse followed him, clearing the way. Lin dismounted and went forward to obey his nephew’s orders. His Swordsman’s discipline held him, but his face was pale and strained. Janir had tied the rope around himself, and now Lin, under his orders, lay flat on the path with the rope coiled around him too, to steady Janir as he made the perilous descent. Aila prayed hard that the rope would hold, the ledge not give way, that Mellin was unharmed, that he and Janir would be safe. Behind her, she could hear Marla softly weeping, but there was too much fear in her to be able to offer comfort to her friend. Then, suddenly, the Healer in her came awake and alert, demanding to know what she was doing. If Mellin were hurt, he would need her care, and she cautiously dismounted and loosed her Healer’s sack from its place among her gear.

Janir called something up to Lin, but Aila did not hear what he said. She saw Lin tense to take the strain of the rope, heard a scrabbling, scrambling sound, and then two heads, one chestnut and one red, appeared above the edge of the path. Very cautiously, lest the path fall away again, Janir helped Mellin up as Lin drew them in on the rope till they were safely over the edge and back on the path. Then, for a moment, there was nothing but a confusion of relief. The three Swordsmen had sunk down in a heap, exhausted with effort and emotion, embracing each other. Aila and Marla, who had also dismounted, turned to hug each other, weeping. Aiel came to the two girls, hugging them too, reassuring them, but Aila was sure that it was also because he too needed release from his concern for Mellin. At last the Swordsmen staggered to their feet and Mellin was supported by his father and cousin back to Aila. He had been very frightened, he was dazed and winded, he was scratched and bruised and dusty and muddy and had a gash on one cheek, but otherwise he was whole and unharmed. Aila dressed the cut and scratches with healing salves, and mixed him a draught for the shaking and the shock he had received, and checked very carefully that he had no broken bones. Then, her work done, the delayed shock of it took her and she wrapped her arms around her cousin, holding him tightly, and gasped “Oh Mellin, Mellin!” “Aila , dear, hush!” he exclaimed, embarrassed at her display of emotion , “It is well with me, thanks to Janir.” He returned her hug to show her so, and the moment passed, and she smiled at him and turned briskly to Janir. “Are you hurt, Janir?” But nothing ailed him but a slight rope burn, quickly salved. Meanwhile Marla had been saying something to Mellin in a soft undertone, her eyes still filled with tears. He smiled, seemingly to reassure her, but then gave a little cry of concern. The girl had swayed against him, as if she might faint, and he caught her and called out to Aila. The Healer turned towards them, and looked round at the others. They were all pale with shock, even Janir, who had dealt so well with the whole near-disaster, and her own hands were trembling. She declared that they should all take a draught of the mild calming herbs she had with her, before they went on.

As she crossed the path-bridge, Aila looked down into the gully where Mellin had fallen, and shuddered. She could see the ledge on which he had landed and knew it was nothing but the mercy of Light which had saved him. If he had gone over at any other point he would have crashed to his death on the broken rocks below. Once past that place, though, it seemed their perils were over. Though the ride was tiring and nerve-wracking, they passed safely through the mountain edges, and at last found they were heading downwards. The sea still lay to the West of them, but they lost sight of it as they descended the path. It was widening now as the mountains retreated, and at last they found themselves riding down a slope into a kind of dale. A stream had joined them, running out of the mountains, and they were riding on rough turf. The dale was at least as wide as the tongue of land on which the Western Faring House had stood, and was walled in with rock walls that towered to the sky, honeycombed at the foot with holes and caves, a few stunted trees and bushes clinging precariously to the rock faces, interspersed with sheets of some climbing creeper,now nothing but bare stalks and developing buds, but which must be a carpet of green leaves in summer. There were a few large boulders scattered here and there, but their weather-worn appearance and the mosses and lichens growing on them showed that they had fallen long ago . On the floor of the dale was a scattering of fallen branches and vines near the base of the rock walls, but otherwise little grew there but the rough turf. A few patches of berry bushes, just coming alive after the winter, and two or three darkberry trees , that later in the year would be laden with the small, tart fruits, comprised the only other vegetation. It was a rough, wild place enough, but after the barren, perilous Narrows it seemed a place of refuge and plenty. “It will be dark soon” Janir said “We must make camp here for tonight. There is enough material for a fire, and the caves are safe enough, and should protect us from the cold night air.”

They dismounted and tended first to their mounts, unsaddling them, letting them drink from the stream, then tethering them where they could graze the rough turf. Mellin, Janir and Aila inspected Starstorm’s foot – the one that had caused Mellin’s fall – and found no sign of strain, but just to be sure Aila salved and strapped it up, laughing as the beast nuzzled her bowed head as she did so. Janir helped her up afterwards, and she smiled at him and said, “Janir, that was well done, today!” He smiled back, but did not answer, saying only “I had best make sure no beasts are sheltering in the caves, before we enter them” , and went off in that direction. Mellin and Aila gazed after him, then she turned to her cousin and said “It was well done!” “Aye” Mellin agreed. “I think I knew, even as I fell, that if there were a way out for me, Janir would find it. I have Sword-Brethren who would understand my every feeling, and those who are calm and cool, but none like Janir, who can do both at once – understand the need and the – the despair, feel it with you, yet still be able to find and make the way out of it.” “Were you in despair, Mellin?” she asked gently. “I thought I would die” he answered her, simply, then “For a moment!” he added. “And how is it with you now?” “I am a little stiff, and my cheek is sore. Nothing worse, praise Light!” “Praise Light!” she echoed. And later, when they had eaten, and Aiel made the Evening Prayers for them, he was careful to give thanks to Light for Mellin’s rescue, and for their safe passage through the Westmost Narrows, and for Janir, their guide.

Though it was unlikely that there could be any danger here, the three Swordsmen allotted themselves a watch-period each, deciding that Lin should take first watch, Janir the middle, and Mellin the last , to give him time to sleep and recover from his ordeal. They managed to find enough material in the dale to keep a small fire going, and sleeping fully-dressed, well-wrapped in cloaks and in the shelter of the cave entrance, they were not too cold. Aila, though, despite her tiredness, dozed fitfully, disturbed by fragmented dreams of the day’s events. She was aware of Marla’s even breathing nearby, and was glad that her friend had fallen asleep, no doubt again tired out by the unfamiliar riding. At last she drifted into an uneasy sleep, but woke with a start, seeing again, in her dreams, Mellin tumbling over the cliff edge. Once awake, she felt chilly, and decided to go out to the fire to warm herself. One of the Swordsmen would be there, so she would be safe. Aila rose carefully, so as not to disturb Marla or the others, wrapped her cloak tightly round her, and went out into the open. Sure enough, a shadowy figure was seated on one of the lower boulders by which the fire had been built. He heard her approach and turned a questioning face to look at her , and she saw that it was Janir. “Aila?” he said quietly, his firelit face showing friendly concern “What is wrong? Can you not sleep?” She shook her head and sat down beside him as he made room for her. “I did sleep a little” she said “but then I dreamed of Mellin’s fall, and it woke me, and I was too cold to sleep again, so I came to the fire to warm myself.” He took one of her hands and said, “Yes, you are cold,Aila.” He put a comforting arm around her cloaked shoulders and snuggled her against him. “There, that will warm you.” A memory crossed her mind, and she laughed delightedly. He grinned down at her. “What?” he asked “Why are you laughing?” “I was thinking, this is like our childhood times at the Fortress, Janir. Do you remember how we used to camp sometimes on the edge of the Forest? We would frighten ourselves with imagining there were hill-cats about, and you would snuggle us all into your cloak and tell us we would be safe, you and Mellin would fight off any hill-cats!” “I remember.” he said, smiling.

Suddenly serious, she said “Oh, Janir, I was so afraid for Mellin today! I looked down into the place and saw how small the ledge was, and how steep the rest – surely it was only the mercy of Light that saved him.” “I know” he said, and she felt him give a little, unconscious shudder. “I was fearful he might be only half-conscious, and roll off the ledge before I could reach him, but by Light’s mercy he was clear-headed enough to understand when I told him not to move.” “Yet you kept so calm, and ordered things so well” she told him. ” It was well done, Janir, and no need to be falsely modest when we speak the truth and say so.” “But it was Light’s doing, not mine – I am sure of that!” he protested. “On the Lightstone Way” she told him “Aiel my father was very reluctant to receive the honour done him for his part in defeating Lak. But the Dancers told him that it was Light’s Will that he be honoured, not for his own worth, but for his obedience to Light.” “The Dancers!” he said, with excitement in his voice.”We shall see them, if we are going to the Meeting Place.” Then, musingly, “Do you know, Aila, I saw a Dancer once. When Aiel returned to the Mountain Fortress on the Lightstone Way, my father and mother were there to greet him, with the others of the Council-at-Need. And two Dancers came too, to honour him. I was a babe a few months old on my mother’s arm, yet I saw a Dancer and I remember, Aila! I remember a great, towering, blue-green flame.” “How wonderful!” she exclaimed, then, “Yes, it will be an awesome sight, Janir – but oh, how much more wonderful if they can heal Marla of the Darkness in her.” “Oh, yes!” he answered, and they sat quietly, thinking of Marla’s Way, and how it might end. Aila was warm again now, and sleepy. She leaned her head on Janir’s shoulder, enjoying the warmth and drowsiness, the sharp woodsmoke smell of the fire, and Janir’s quiet, brotherly companionship. She was not aware of falling asleep, still nestled on his shoulder. She half-woke again to the sensation of being carried and gently set down in her place beside Marla again, the cloak tucked round her, then she fell back into a deep, contented, dreamless sleep.

When morning came, the sky was overcast, and they looked at the lowering clouds, and prayed that it would not rain. A chill breeze was blowing from the sea coast, and if there were rain, they would be very uncomfortable. They made a hasty breakfast, and set out again on their journey. The dale in which they had spent the night soon fell away behind them as the land began to rise and they were out on the cliff-tops once more, but now no mountains hemmed them in on the other side; the range was falling away to the East of them, and they were riding on a wide, gently undulating headland. The morning’s threatening clouds had been thrust Eastwards too by the winds coming from the sea, and these had warmed as the morning progressed. When at last the sun came gleaming hazily through, and the sea-mist lifted, Aila thought it was quite pleasant, riding in these solitary far Western lands. Suddenly , Janir reined in Redhawk, then trotted cautiously nearer to the cliff edge. Then he turned to them with a smile, bidding them all come closer – but carefully! When they had gathered enquiringly round him, he said “Look!” and pointed down to the sea. They obeyed, and Aila gave a gasp of delight. A large group of sea-cats – males, females, and half-grown young – were playing in the water below. They all watched, entranced,as the beautiful creatures curved through the water, leaping, diving, criss-crossing each other’s paths with breathtaking natural skill. They watched the sea-creatures for a good while, then reluctantly rode on. Janir said “The sea-cats come close to shore here because it is so deserted and they have no enemies – no hunters to trap them for their skins.” Lin answered “Your grandfather has long tried to stamp out that trade in the City, Janir. He will allow no killing in the Harbour, and no skin-trading in the Harbour market. But the trade does go on, still. And the sea-cats avoid the waters near the Harbour now. I am glad to have seen them again.”

Marla said , softly and sadly “The couches in the Night Temple are spread with the sea-cats’ fur.” “Oh!” Aila exclaimed ” And –that couch too, Marla?” Marla nodded dumbly. Janir said “Marla – I am sorry! Have I brought some evil memory to your mind? Forgive me.” “Oh, no.” the girl said, “I was pleased to see the beautiful creatures, Janir. I am just sad that even they have been touched by Darkness, slaughtered to give the Children of Night soft couches for their evil revels.” Mellin asked, as if to take Marla’s thoughts from dark things, “Where do the sea-cats live, I wonder? They must come to land some time, surely?” “Maybe on some deserted Western beach or inlet” Janir answered “but there are tales – brought back, it is said, by seamen who were caught in the Two-Moon Tide and lived to tell the tale-of other lands beyond the West. There are stories that ships have been blown off course, far to the Northwest, and found strange lands, unpeopled. And that, maybe, is where the seacats live.” “Is it possible?” asked Arenel. “It may be” his father mused, “For I know well, since the Dancers took me there, that there are other worlds enough, and yes, unpeopled. And if worlds, why not lands? We know only the Western and Eastern continents of our Li’is, which does not mean there may not be other lands. For instance, no one knows what lies beyond the Meeting Place and its mountains.” “It is an interesting idea.” Lin said. “Maybe one day we shall build better and faster ships, and search for these new lands.”

Now Janir pointed Eastward, and they saw that the mountains had given way to a high, flat tableland. “That is the Plateau of the Westerners” Janir told then. “We are riding to the West of it. We shall follow the edge of the Plateau until we come to the Last Faring House. That is where Zohra and Arenel will meet us.” “The Last Faring House?” queried Aila. “I thought the Third Faring House was the last.” “In distance, yes, but not in time” Janir laughed. “This Faring House was the last to be built, which is why it is so named.” “There were never many travellers along the Western coast” Aiel said. “In time, though, there came to be enough for the Priesthood to build Faring Houses. Still, it must be lonely for their Keepers.” Marla said, quietly, “Sometimes it os good to be in a lonely place, Aiel – to be in quiet and peace, and away from the Darkness in others.” They knew she meant, though she did not say it, that where there were few people, she was less troubled by the operation of her ‘Dark Perception’. Aiel asked her “Is there no way you can control what you receive from others, Marla?” “No” the girl answered “I have tried, Aiel, but it is like trying to dam up a flood, and I have so little strength! And if I do hold it back for a while, it all bursts through in the end, and then it all comes together, instead of a little at a time, and that is even worse. And it is only the dark things, the evil things, that I feel, so that everyone I meet, I see first as evil. I have to learn for myself what good is in them, but the dark things, anger, evil, hatred, pain – those I know at once.” “Poor child!” Lin said, gently, “It must be like being fed constantly on poison!”

Marla nodded, but could not reply, for suddenly a great sob rose in her throat. Mellin, seeing she was too overcome to take thought for controlling her horse, caught her reins, stopped both her mount and Starstorm, dismounted, and lifted Marla down. The others also reined in and dismounted, gathering round to comfort Marla as she leaned against Mellin and wept .Aila tried to imagine having a Perception that was out of her control, and Perceived nothing but evil. Lin had spoken truly, she agreed to herself, it was as if Marla were constantly taking in some slow, cold poison. And perhaps, she thought, it was not a bad thing that Marla had been able to talk, and to weep, about this Dark power, for it would ease her a little. Aiel must have been thinking the same thing, or Perceived her thought, for when Marla’s tears stopped and she was calmer again, he said “Marla, do not be afraid to speak about your feelings and your pains. It is not good to shut them inside yourself. We cannot use our Perceptions to help you, yet, but that is not the only way to ease your hurts.” “I know” Marla replied. “Thank you – all of you. I do not need to be able to Perceive your care for me, to feel it, and I am grateful.” She managed a smile, and now that she was comforted, they remounted and rode on.

Meanwhile, high up on the Plateau above them, Arenel and Zohra too were on the move. They had left the Ket’s camp after the morning meal, accompanied by Zohra’s father. Arenel carried with him a headful of messages for Aiel, from various friends among the Westerners, and the wristband of coloured plaited cords, given him by the Ket, which would tell any Westerner he met that he was a friend of the West, Among Zohra’s gear was the harp which Arenel had given her, and supplies enough to get them to the Last Faring House. Ket-Kai guided them unerringly across the Plateau, though to Arenel it seemed all one vast, featureless expanse of grassland. Once or twice they passed small groups of herders with their beasts, and exchanged greetings, and as they rode, Ket-Kai told Arenel how the Black Piper had passed through their Camp long years ago, leaving his twin brother Ket-Lai alive, yet unconscious as a dead man. “It was the Bloodstone” the Ket’s son said, his voice shaking with memory even now. “And then Aiel came, with the Lightstone, but after Lak…we did not want to hear of any other Stone. My father would not take Aiel’s word, and said that Lin must fight the Sword-Trial with me, to prove what they said was true. I never had an equal – except my brother- among the Swordsmen of the West. I was sure I would defeat Lin! But in the end I was lying at his feet with his sword – the True Sword- at my throat, and waiting to die – for the Sword-Trial was to the death. But Lin did not slay me. He could have done, and his was the right, but he took his sword-point and made a mark the length of my body, and let me go. But if he had cut where he had only scratched, I would have been dead – he knew it, and so did everyone there – the Ket too. Truly, Lin said, without any words at all, “I am the victor, and have the right to kill, and this is how I could do it – but I choose to be merciful, because I am a Child of Light.” Then I knew he was an honourable man as well as a skillful Swordsman, and I took him for Sword-Brother, though we might never meet again.”

“But you did.” Arenel said, fascinated by this telling of a story that he knew well – but not in any detail- from the other side, as it were. For he had never heard exactly what had happened during the Sword-Trial on the Lightstone Way. “Aye” Ket-Kai said thoughtfully “and now Aiel’s Way continues, and again I have a small part in it – and my daughter a greater part.” “We will guard her well, Ket-Kai” Arenel promised. “I know Aiel my father swore that to you, and so do I.” “I know” Ket-Kai answered, smiling at the young Priest, “but do you take care too, Arenel.You are neither Lightstone-Bearer nor Swordsman – you carry no weapon at all, and seem to me to be the most at risk.” Arenel smiled back. “Oh, I will take no foolish risks, Ket-Kai. But I am a Priest of Light, and maybe the Priesthood have another kind of weaponry.” “True” the Westerner admitted, then slowed his pace, seeing another group of herders. “Wait here” he told Arenel and Zohra, and trotted across to speak to them. Arenel glanced at Zohra. She had been very quiet during their ride. Now he asked “Is it well with you, Zohra?” She looked at him questioningly. “Yes. Why should it not be?” “You have been so quiet” he answered, and she smiled at him, and explained “My father was speaking with an honoured guest. It is not the way of my people, that I should interrupt such an important conversation.” At first he thought she was teasing him, but then realised she was in earnest. Ket-Kai returned, looking thoughtful. “That group have been herding near the Western edge of the Plateau.” he told the,. “I asked if they had seen any sign of travellers below, but they have not. I hoped for news of the others. I know Janir was bringing them through the Westmost Narrows, and that is a perilous path! I would have liked to have news of them, to know they were safely through.” “I am sure they are.” Arenel said. “For Light is with them. And the Secret Word says that my father’s times will not end until he has seen everything accomplished that is written in it.”

Arenel had not expected the Plateau to be so vast. They had set out in the morning and ridden almost non-stop, with only a short break for a meal. Now the sun was beginning to sink, and they were still on the Plateau. True, they were travelling across the Plateau at an angle, towards its Northwestern corner, not in a straight line as they would be if heading directly for the Merchant Town, but Arenel had thought they would be at the Faring House by nightfall. Ket-Kai, though, when the young Priest questioned him, shook his head. “No,not tonight.” he said,”We will be off the Plateau , but there is some rough ground to cover between here and the Faring House, and I would not ride that way in the dark. There are some shallow caves at the base of the Plateau that we can sleep in, and go on in the morning.” As Ket-Kai had said, it was quite late before they left the Plateau and found the caves he had spoken of. They lit a small fire and ate their meal, then the Ket’s son told Arenel and Zohra “Go now, and sleep. You will have long journeys ahead of you on Marla’s Way.” Arenel protested “But what of you? You cannot watch all night!” “I shall not” Zohra’s father told him. He patted the soft nose of his horse, and added “This fellow I named Whisper, because his hearing is so sharp. He would not let a stranger near without warning me. I will settle the horses and check there is no danger, then I will sleep – and Whisper shall keep watch!”

By the time Zohra and Arenel were settling down to sleep, the others had reached the Last Faring House. Once the Narrows and the sea-cats had been left behind, there had been only an uneventful ride through the almost unfrequented far Western lands, gradually leaving the sea behind as the coast curved outwards again, until they lost sight of it altogether. They had glimpsed one small, distant, isolated village, but no other signs of life until Janir pointed out the Faring House ahead of them. It was a medium-sized building of a stone that was not white, grey or red, but a pleasant creamy-golden colour that made the building look warm and welcoming, as if it glowed with light. When they arrived at the Faring House, they found that their welcome was indeed warm, not only because this Faring House did not often receive guests, but because the Keepers, the Priest, Cerrin, Fara, his Lady, and their two young children, were so naturally friendly and hospitable. They knew Janir, of course, and had heard of Shala’s wedding, so assumed that their guests were returning from that event .Even to his Brother-in-Light Aiel could not divulge the reason for his journey, though as soon as introductions were made, he could not but be known as the Lightstone-Bearer. He mentioned only that his son and a friend from the Westerners would be meeting them at the Faring House and then they would continue their journey. It was not deceit if Cerrin assumed they would be returning to the City, but even this hiding of the true facts from his brother Priest, though necessary, felt uncomfortable to Aiel. He made amends, though, by imparting the Lightstone’s blessing to the little Priestly family. It was good to be in the calm and pleasant atmosphere of the Faring House, after their tumultuous journey. They all felt it right to go to the Prayer Room and give thanks for safekeeping in danger, and after that they went back to the dining hall of the Faring House and were served a simple but satisfying meal. Unsurprisingly, all of them were weary, but felt it would be impolite to their hosts to retire too soon. However, Cerrin himself said, after a while, “It is good to have you here and to talk with you, but I see that you are all in need of your sleep now.” None of them was inclined to demur, and all went willingly to their beds. Aila shared a chamber with Marla, as before, so that she was at hand if Marla had need. But both girls slept deeply and undisturbed, and woke to a bright morning.

As soon as Aila woke, she was aware of a nudge to her Perception, and at once cast it out, finding Arenel’s. They mingled their delight in reunion, then Arenel told her that he, Ket-Kai and Zohra were underway, and would be with them before nightfall. In truth, Arenel had expected an uncomfortable night, being unused to sleeping in the wild, albeit in the shelter of a cave,and also anticipating the effects of the long ride on his body. It seemed, however, that he had grown used to horsemanship, and he had slept well. Ket-Kai had woken them early, and they had breakfasted lightly before setting off again. As they carefully traversed the rough heathland of which Ket-Kai had warned, Arenel said “The Last Faring House must be little used, then?” “It is not busy” admitted Ket-Kai “but it is important that it is there. Cerrin has the Soul-Watch of some villages that are scattered and lonely. Their people need somewhere to come for Priestly care. Fara, of course, is a Healer, so she meets that need too. Even some of our herders at the Western edge of the Plateau have had need of her skills from time to time.” Arenel nodded agreement, knowing that the Faring Houses outside the City or Merchant Town were usually allotted to Priests who had a Healer wife, so that all needs could be met there. As they travelled, the terrain grew less rough and they moved more quickly. A breeze was blowing from the West and Arenel, City and Harbour born, smelled the sea on it. Ket-Kai glanced at him questioningly as he lifted his head to the familiar scent, and when Arenel explained, he said “Aye, the sea lies West, beyond the Faring House.”

A little later Ket-Kai pointed across the flat landscape and said “See, there is the House. We have made better time than I thought.” At first Arenel, not as keen-sighted as the Westerners, could not see the building, but then a gleam of low sunlight caught its honey-coloured stone and showed it up among the surrounding healthland. Arenel sent out his Perception again, and found Aiel’s and Aila’s . “We can see the Faring House now. We will soon be there.” he told them, silently. And indeed it was not long before they reached the Faring House and found the others waiting. After relieved and delighted greetings they went inside, where Ket-Kai greeted Cerrin and Fara as old frineds, and touseld the children’s hairaffectionately. He would eat and stay the night at the Faring House and then return to the Plateau. While the younger members of the party exchanged stories of their journeys, Ket-Kai conferred with Aiel and Lin about the route they would be taking, telling them that none of his outlying herders had so far seen any signs of Si-Mara’s emissaries. “But the Dark Ones are cunning at hiding their tracks” he said. “My herders have been told to misdirect any strangers enquiring after you, or us.” They would need to cross the lands that skirted the Plateau, and the farmlands outside the Merchant Town, and that would mean one or two nights camping in the open, Ket-Kai told them. But the weather was good, and any Westerners they might meet, for some of them would travel to the Merchant Town for provisions from time to time, would know Zohra and Janir and recognise their party as friends of the West, so would give any help needed.. “And the country is not too rough” he added “there are places of shelter and streams for water.” He had drawn a rough map to help them. Aiel was thinking that whatever the journey might bring, at least they need not go near the Red Forest, or the Dark Ruins where such Darkness had met them on the Lightstone Way.

Aila, overjoyed by her brother’s return and eager to share his news, did not notice at first that Janir had slipped quietly into the background again. Only later, when talking was done and they were about their various tasks, did she realise that her friend and comforter seemed to have drawn away from her. Why?, she wondered. Perhaps he did not wish to intrude on her reunion with Arenel, or perhaps he felt that his duties towards her were finished with her brother’s return. What concerned Aila, though, was that Janir might feel himself unwanted, not needed, now. She would not like to hurt her warmhearted ‘cousin of a cousin’. Accordingly, she went in search of Janir and found him in the harness room, strengthening a fitting on Redhawk’s bridle. When he looked up and saw her, his smile was as warm and welcoming as ever. “What is it, Aila? Do you have a message for me?” “No, I wished to speak to you, Janir.” “Then I am listening.” “Janir” she began, trying to find a way to frame her words, “when we were children playing in the Forest, if I hurt myself I would run to you and you would comfort me for my scratches and bruises. Then I would forget, and run away to play again. But I am not a child now.” “I am not sure that I understand, Aila.” “You offered me comfort because Arenel was gone, and I was glad of it. You have been very kind to me, and I thank you for it. But I do not like to think that you believe I would use your friendship so, and forget you again now my brother has returned. You told me that you are not Arenel, but no more is Arenel Janir.” Aila smiled, and held out her hand “I still need my friend Janir, my ‘cousin of a cousin’ – unless you wish it otherwise now.” Janir took her hand and held it, saying “I will always be your friend, Aila.” “I am glad” she said “and perhaps I will be able to do something for you, too.” “Indeed you can” Janir answered, turning her hand over in his and looking at it. “Aila, your fingers are smaller and more skillful than mine” – he pointed at his work on the bench – “If you could hold this strap here, so..” he smiled broadly at her, and they both laughed. “Gladly!” she said, placing her fingers where he indicated, and they bent over the bench together in companionable silence as he finished his work.

When they all gathered again for the evening meal, Ket-Kai said he would be rising early to set off on his journey back to the Plateau, but they need not. However, when morning came, Aiel and Zohra were also up early, to bid him farewell, while the others slept. Zohra hugged and kissed her father, and he gave her blessings for the Way. Aiel thanked him again for his help, and once more promised to guard Zohra carefully. When they came to the door of the Faring House, though, and Ket-Kai waited for his horse to be brought, the Westerner looked up at the sky with concern. Though the weather had been good so far, this morning the sky was grey and lowering, and a brisk wind blew in from the sea coast. “Aiel, a storm is brewing” Ket-Kai said, wise in the weather lore of his people, “and these sudden storms can be fierce. I would not advise you to travel today. As I said, you will need to camp out between here and the Merchant Town. If you set out today, you may well be soaked through and find little shelter. That will be good for none of you, but especially Marla.” Aiel knew what he meant. Though born in Li’is, Marla’s blood heritage was the Darkness of Ma’al, and with it came a response to Li’is that left her always a little tired and weak, though she had learned to overcome it. If she could shake off her Dark heritage, he thought, no doubt it would be well with her, but for now she needed more care than the others. Musing thus, he said “You are right, Ket-Kai. And there is not the urgent need there was on the Lightstone Way, where I had to reach the Dancers before Lak could harm them. Marla’s need is great, yes, but we can delay if necessary. I thank you for your advice. But should you not stay, also?” Ket-Kai laughed. “We of the West are out in all weathers, Aiel, and prepared for all. I can take shelter with the herders, if need be.”

Whisper had been brought now, and after a final hug for his daughter and a farewell to Aiel, Ket-Kai swung easily into the saddle and set off across the heathland. Aiel Perceived Zohra’s sadness at the parting, but also her determination to help with Marla’s Way. She came of good stock, he thought, standing beside the girl as she watched until her father and his mount were a faint, far dot in the distance. When they went back into the Faring House, he was not surprised when she came with him to the Prayer Room to make the Morning Prayers. Soon the others were awake and joined them for the morning meal, Arenel going first to the Prayer Room to make his own Morning Prayers. Ket-Kai had made a hasty breakfast before leaving, but Aiel and Zohra had waited for the rest of their party. When Aiel told them about the change in the weather and Ket-Kai’s advising against travel that day, they were disappointed, but accepted the wisdom of the Westerner’s advice. Perhaps, Aiel thought, glancing at Marla, it might not be a bad thing that she should have a day’s enforced rest from travel. So it was a matter of finding something to do with their unexpectedly free day. Aila offered to help Fara with her Healer’s tasks, since there were always salves to be made up and draughts to be mixed, and Fara gladly accepted. First, though, Aila went to Marla to see how she fared, and if the journey had tired her, but the girl seemed in good enough spirits. She was naturally a little disappointed at the delay, but,like the others, saw the wisdom of it, and did not complain. Zohra stayed with Marla, to chat and keep her company, and Cerrin and Fara’s little ones, curious about their visitors and coming to see them , were a welcome distraction too. Aiel and Arenel were discussing Priestly matters with Cerrin, who had little physical contact with his brother Priests, though there was always the Thought-without-Words, at need. The three Swordsmen, having checked on the horses and gear, had been running over the possibilities of staying overnight in the open on the way to the Merchant Town, and what they would need.

The threatened storm did indeed blow in with a ferocity that was surprising, and Aiel and the others were glad to have taken Ket-Kai’s advice. They had hoped it would eventually abate, but with no sign of that by nightfall, Aiel wondered whether they would be forced to stay another day at the Faring House. At least, he thought, they seemed to be safely hidden here, and he had received no word of danger. Gradually, though, it seemed the winds began to die down, and the heavy rain to cease. Eventually Lin went to the door of the Faring House and looked out. The sky was clearing, and he could see the Shield, though haloed with remaining cloud, but not the smaller Hound. Returning to the others, he said “I think the storm is passing Aiel. If the weather holds, we should be able to set off again tomorrow.” Relieved that they should be able to continue on Marla’s Way, knowing how much was at stake, they gathered in the guest room of the Faring House. Aiel and Arenel had made the Evening Prayers with Cerrin, and now he and Fara had left their visitors to themselves and gone about their various tasks in the Faring House until the evening meal. “Sing for us, Zohra” Lin suggested “Your sweet music will refresh us all.” Zohra smiled at him and took up the harp that Arenel had given her. She tried a chord, then deftly, lovingly, tuned its strings that had slackened a little with travelling. Once more she struck a trial chord or two, then, seemingly satisfied, began to play and sing in earnest. Aila, watching the Westerner, thought again how unique was Zohra’s music. She felt that music was as much a part of the other girl’s very being as Aila’s Perception was of her own. Aila was used to being surrounded by music, for Aiel, Arenel and Arentha were all skilled musicians. Aila’s family were craftsmen in music, but Zohra was a musician by nature, instinct, and the Gifting of Light. As she sang for them now there was no sense of performance about her. In fact Aila felt that Zohra, once her fingers touched the harpstrings, had all but forgotten the existence of the others in the room. For those others, though, Zohra’s music was part of the peace in which, for the time being, they were enfolded. Tomorrow the journey and the Way would begin again, the dangers, fears and pains must be faced. However, tonight there was the peaceful, warmly-lit guest room of the Faring House, and Zohra’s song, which somehow twined the peace and warmth and comfort, the hope and blessing of Light, the comradeship and fierce intent of the Way, into a melody that though sweet and tender, was yet a battle cry to the spirit that walked in Light.

Aila felt herself so moved by Zohra’s music that she glanced round at her companions, curious to see how the music might be affecting them. Her Perception caught, from her father, an echo of her own feelings. Aiel was seated at a table with Lin, between them lay Ket-Kai’s sketched map, which they had been consulting. Her father was smiling gently, Lin’s face was relaxed and his eyes closed as he leaned back in his chair, listening. Next Aila looked at Marla, hoping that the music might bring her peace. Her friend seemed to be listening intently, her eyes, too, closed, her head leaning right back against her chair so that her long straight fall of blonde hair hung down over its back like a curtain. To Aila, Marla had the look of someone in a deep sickness momentarily lulled by a healing draught. Aila’s eyes went next to her brother, who felt the touch of her Perception and smiled at her. She felt his shared delight in Zohra’s music. Mellin, her cousin, seemed, like Aila herself, to be watching the others’ reaction to the music; at the moment his attention was on Marla, and his face showed a touch of concern. Last of all, Aila looked across at Janir. Her ‘cousin of a cousin’ was sprawled across his chair, brown eyes half-closed, mouth curved with a smile of pleasure. The same steady, kind, dependable Janir, but there seemed to Aila to be something different about him, which she could not, for a moment, pin down. Then she realised that it was not Janir, but her awareness of him, that was different. The smallest details – the unruly chestnut curls at neck, ears and brow, the firelight on an angle of his strong-boned face, the nails of his capable hands- seemed imbued with a strange significance. Was it an effect of Zohra’s music, an unusual stirring of her Perception? Aila looked round again at the others, but there was no strangeness with them. Puzzled, she looked back at Janir and felt an odd, soft warmth in her, as if she were a piece of wax melting in a gentle flame. Janir, seeming to feel her gaze, looked across and smiled at her. It was his usual, familiar smile, yet it so affected Aila that she felt as though she received a blessing. Finally realising what was happening to her, Aila thought, astonished at herself, “I am in love with Janir!” Confused, she ducked her head, feeling her cheeks burn hot and red.

When she lifted it again, Janir had turned his eyes away from her, back to Zohra, and she studied him again, but covertly, under her lashes. She tried to trace the beginning of this love for him, but could not , for it had sprung on her full-grown. To this very moment he had been friend, confidant and brother-substitute, cared for, yes, but only as a friend. She thought of the many times he had held her hand or slipped an arm around her shoulders to comfort her for some small hurt; now she felt that his touch might make her tremble. Really, Aila thought to herself, she must find some way to regain control of her thoughts, or she would be broadcasting her feelings to all in the House who had Perception! She left her chair and slipped quietly from the room, resolutely not looking again at Janir, and made her way to the Bathing Place. She looked in the polished metal mirror that hung there, and saw a flushed face and glowing eyes reflected back at her. Going to the pump, she drew cool water and splashed her face. She had often heard love referred to as a sickness and laughed at the notion; now she felt as though, in truth, a fever burned in her. Again she looked in the mirror, and saw that she looked cooler and calmer now. Cautiously she let her thoughts stray to Janir, and found herself murmuring his name. “Sweet Light” she prayed softly “You know all things. You knew I loved him before I did. Teach me to control it, until he learns to love me too. I would not shame him!” For, knowing Janir’s kind and honourable nature, she knew it would distress him greatly to learn that she loved him if he felt only a friendly, brotherly affection for her. When she returned to the guest room, Zohra’s song had ended, and she was talking to Marla. Aila did not want to approach her father or brother, still afraid that they might Perceive her new emotions. She did not want, either, to be too near Janir! Aila joined the other girls, and said “Zohra,your music is so beautiful.” “Yes, it is” Marla agreed, “and it helps me, Zohra. Your music has healing in it.” “I am glad” Zohra said, simply. From the corner of her eye, Aila glimpsed Janir approaching them, She said “Oh, I am thirsty!” and escaped to a nearby table, where she poured a cup of water and buried her face in it. She heard Janir congratulating Zohra on her music – Sweet Light, even the sound of his voice had power to move her now- and then he was coming towards her. She could not retreat from him again, it would be too obvious, too hurtful to him. She heard his gentle, concerned voice “Aila, is it well with you?” She set down the cup and turned resolutely to meet his gaze, and suddenly all fear and confusion died, leaving her with only two strong certainties; that she loved Janir with all her heart and that, whether he came to love her or not, he would never do anything to hurt her.

Truthfully, she said “No, Janir, I am a little feverish and thirsty. But do not be concerned for me, it is nothing that can harm me.” He frowned a little, and touched his fingers to her cheek. “You do feel a little warm, Aila. Should you not rest?” “I will” she promised him, then, to lighten the mood, “See, I told you that you would have made a Healer, Janir.” A servant came to summon them to the evening meal, and Aila took her usual place with Marla and Zohra, chatting to her friends.She was facing Mellin across the table and Janir was on her cousin’s left, her brother on his right. Aiel spoke the Meal-Blessing and the meal began. In her new-found love for Janir, she was very aware of him, watching him in the lulls of conversation as they ate, noting the familiar things about him; his quick, warm smile, the firm, deft movements of his hands, the brown eyes that seemed always watchful of others’ welfare. Yet she was seeing, too, things about him she had not noticed before, small things – a little scar on his brow, a slightly crooked front tooth – insignificant details, as though she mapped him in her mind and heart so that she would know him through and through. When she had first seated herself at the table, he had given her a concerned, enquiring look, as if he asked if it were well with her now, and she had smiled at him in reassurance. Then he had returned her smile, and turned to speak to Mellin. She was happy enough, once the first shock of discovery was over, to sit chatting with her friends and, between times, to explore her feelings for Janir. Once or twice in the past she had thought herself in love, but it had always been some attribute of the man that had attracted her; a handsome face, a ready wit, eloquence – once a young Priest who had a beautiful voice and fine command of language had taken her fancy. In the Temple he prayed and sang with a Gifting that lifted the soul, but outside it she had found him to be a shy, rather dull young man, sadly lacking in humour.

With Janir, though, she could not separate one thing and say “This is why I love him.” Though he was certainly not ugly, nor could his strong, warm face be called handsome. His frame was fit, strong and pleasing to see, but no more so than many another Swordsman. He was devoted to Light, a good and honourable man, but so too were others- Mellin, for instance, his cousin and hers. His warmth, concern and gentleness, his friendly nature, though so much part of him, were not unique either. He had a sense of humour, could be merry or teasing, but she had known men who could use their wit like a sword. And his speech tended more towards the blunt and factual than to the eloquent. Having thus catalogued Janir, Aila knew it was everything about him that she loved, therefore the man himself, not any one facet of him. And knowing that, she knew her love for him was true, totally different from her youthful early fancies. Could she hope that he might love her in return? There had been no indication that he had a sweetheart, but he might have. If he had not, could he care for her, Aila wondered. He had been kind and gentle to her, offered himself as a substitute for Arenel, comforted her at times – but was that only a continuation into their adult life of the way in which he had acted as an ‘older brother’ to them all during their childhood? If he still saw her as a ‘sister’, it might not even occur to him to consider her as a beloved. Aila sighed. Well, she had entrusted it all to Light, and must await Light’s Will. After all, had not her father and mother, and Lin and Krystha, found their love for each other on the first Way? And that had surely been Light’s doing. She comforted herself with that thought, and took up her conversation with Zohra and Marla.

Later, though, when they had gone to their beds – early, on Aiel’s insistence, since after this they would be sleeping in the open for two or more nights – Aila found herself unable to sleep. Her thoughts were full of Janir and her feelings for him. By now she had become used to including him in her goodnight embraces and to exclude him now would be unthinkable, but she had to be very careful to give him only her usual quick,light kiss. She had been afraid her lips might linger on his cheek and betray her. It was a long time before she fell asleep, and the last thing in her thoughts before she did was Janir’s face. Next morning Aila rose early, determined to take her feelings in hand and be sensible. Going to the Prayer Room, she spent a long time before the Crucible, silently pouring out her feelings, her longings, her fears, and her unwillingness to let them interfere with Marla’s Way. She was open to Light, and felt in her spirit that she received an answer; calming, reassurance and trust rose in her. She could safely leave her love with Light, and Light’s answer, whether yes or no, would be the right answer, for her, and for Janir. After that, she turned her thoughts and prayers to Marla’s Way, and found that soon she was joined by her father and brother, come to make the Morning Prayers. One by one the others , too, drifted into the Prayer Room to commit their journey to Light. Even Marla, still a little hesitant about entering before the Crucible, came, encouraged by Zohra. Aiel felt that Light called them all together, to draw strength from prayer before they set out again. “Before we reach the Merchant Town” he promised “I will send the the Gatekeeper, to ask the Dancers what we should do for Marla.”